For Minnesota’s volleyball team, this sweep was extra sweet.
Despite being forced to travel for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Gophers (30-4), who have the top seed in their region, swept Yale (18-8) in New Haven, Conn., on Friday to advance to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in six years.
Now, for only the second time in program history, Minnesota gets to play host to its own regional and has a chance to return to the Final Four for the second-consecutive year – without leaving home.
Minnesota will play Georgia Tech (27-6) in the regional semifinal at 7 p.m. Friday at the Sports Pavilion.
Minnesota finished the first two rounds, which began with a sweep of Long Island on Thursday, by defeating Yale 30-17, 30-18, 30-19 on Friday.
But despite the lopsided score, Minnesota coach Mike Hebert said the crowd tested the Gophers’ composure.
The Bulldogs were playing on their home court, and many of the 1,159 in attendance tried to make it tough on the Gophers.
“It was extremely noisy and extremely partisan, which is what you expect,” Hebert said. “We showed a lot of poise, and I think the biggest story was our defensive discipline.”
Minnesota outblocked Yale 12-0, and the Gophers more than doubled the Bulldogs’ dig total (62-30).
Outside hitter Erin Martin and middle blocker Jessica Byrnes sparked the Gophers’ block. Martin finished with two solo blocks and three block assists, and Byrnes led the team with six block assists.
“They played right into our defense,” Martin said. “They just seemed to go at us instead of trying to go around us. And they weren’t really that tall, so it worked out well.”
Libero Paula Gentil led the Gophers back row defense with 21 digs, and she also notched two of their nine service aces.
The serving and defensive dominance kept the Bulldogs off balance and helped hold them to a .046 hitting percentage.
Gentil, the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year, said she enjoyed facing an unfamiliar team on the road because she got more attention from the teams and from opposing fans.
“We can’t wait to be home and playing in front of a home crowd, but I also like playing against fans like (Yale’s),” Gentil said. “I actually think I play better when I’m in those situations.”
No matter how well they played on the road, the Gophers said they are glad they can spend the week preparing for the Yellow Jackets instead of traveling.
If they win Friday, the Gophers will face the winner of Ohio State (29-3) and Tennessee (32-2). The four regional participants have lost a total of one game in the tournament.
With the caliber of the teams, Hebert said there won’t be an overwhelming home-court advantage, but he said it certainly won’t hurt.
“I don’t know if there can be a favorite when there are four such quality teams,” Hebert said. “But we certainly have the advantage.”