Spikers sweep Penn State, defeat Indiana to stay in Big Ten hunt

by Brian Stensaas

When all was said and done Saturday night at the Sports Pavilion, Minnesota volleyball setter Lindsey Berg jokingly apologized to outside hitter Nicole Branagh inside the Pavilion’s media room.
The exhausted pair sat at the interview table, somewhat surprised at what occurred mere yards outside the door.
It wasn’t so much the grueling five-game, 2 hour 40 minute win over defending national champion Penn State. They knew the team was capable of defeating the Nittany Lions all along, the Gophers did so in September in State College.
It was more the way in which the two guided the team to victory.
Branagh set a Minnesota school record with 106 kill attempts while Berg notched a career-high 86 assists as the seventh-ranked Gophers downed No. 11 Penn State 17-15, 15-12, 11-15, 6-15, 15-10 before the second-largest crowd in Sports Pavilion history.
“Honestly, yeah, it was a few,” Branagh said of her night, which included a career high 40 kills. “I told Lindsey to keep setting me. I try to do whatever I can to get fired up, and if that means getting 106 attempts, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Branagh also had a hand in the defensive game finishing with a career high 29 digs. It was the second time in her career she finished with a 20-kill, 20-dig night.
“Any team that has Nicole on it has a big swing available to them at any time,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “I thought she came up very big.”
The 5,116 fans packed all the way up to the rafters of the Pavilion paid to see a marquee Big Ten match up. And boy did they get it.
From the get-go, the two foes battled like there was a million dollars at stake. With the exception of the fourth game, in which the Lions won 15-6, the largest lead either team had in the match came when Branagh earned her 40th kill to seal the 15-10 fifth game win.
In reality, what was on the line was something a touch more important in the short run: The conference standings.
The formula was a simple one. Since both teams won Friday night, a loss by the Gophers would give both teams three losses in the conference. Instead, Minnesota (23-2, 12-2 Big Ten) handed the Lions their fourth conference loss of the season, drastically dimming the chances at Penn State repeating as conference champions.
“Beating Penn State — the benchmark for success in the Big Ten the last six or eight years — means at least for 2000, we can put this notch in our barrel that we have swept them,” Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said. “I don’t think too many in the country are able to say that.”
The Gophers are the first to complete a season sweep of the Lions (21-5, 10-4) since Ohio State in 1995.
But knocking off Penn State for the second time wasn’t as easy as the first crack at it.
Minnesota fell behind in all five games, but rallies and long-match experience got the Gophers back in it and ultimately won them the match.
The Gophers starting lineup Saturday consisted totally of juniors and seniors, compared to a fairly young roster for the Lions.
Mixed in the Penn State crew is freshman setter Jessica Hayden, who was told to learn from what happened Saturday.
“I told Jessica to watch Lindsey,” Rose said. “(Berg) has such a terrific impact on the game even though her stature isn’t real high. She plays the game with a passion.”
Against Penn State, Berg got back on track with an old friend who had been absent long enough.
In the past couple weeks, middle blocker Charnette Fair didn’t click with Berg. Last weekend in Madison, things started to look like matches of old.
Early in the year, Fair was a dominant threat in Minnesota’s attack, at one point pounding ten or more kills in six straight matches.
But around the middle of last month, something began to go awry. Fair accumulated just four kills in a five-game tilt with Ohio State and managed just four in the next match with Michigan State — hitting in negative numbers on both occasions.
After resting her knee in Friday’s 15-2, 18-16, 15-11 win over Indiana, Fair stormed back against Penn State to slam 16 kills and hit .353. She also notched a crucial block in the fifth game to set up match-point.
“(Resting Fair on Friday) turned out to be the right decision,” Hebert said. “When she stuffed that ball for the 14th point, it was nice to see some fresh legs get up there. We needed that.”

Brian Stensaas covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]