Badgers hand Gophers first home loss of season

Nolan O'Hara

The fifth ranked Gophers volleyball team was slated for a big rematch against No. 7 Wisconsin Thursday, one that would leave the victor alone atop the Big Ten conference.

In a match that was a battle from the start, Wisconsin took the lead atop the conference, topping Minnesota in four sets: 25-22, 23-25, 30-28 and 29-27. Wisconsin handed the Gophers their first home loss of the season at a sold-out Maturi Pavilion. 

The Pav crowd was lively from the jump. Outside hitter Adanna Rollins notched the first point for the Gophers with a cross-court kill. The fans’ erupted in delight. Minnesota and Wisconsin began trading points, with the Minnesota crowd yelling “point U” after each of the Gophers, but eventually the Badgers pulled away. They took a 19-16 lead, forcing Minnesota on their heels. Middle blocker Regan Pittman’s kill brought the Gophers back within one, trailing 23-22, but the Badgers ended Minnesota’s comeback there, scoring the last two to take the set. It was smooth sailing for Wisconsin offensively in the first, hitting .487 in the set. Leading the way for the Badgers, outside hitter Grace Loberg, who had seven kills in the first.

The Gophers looked for an answer in the second, and they found it by way of outside hitter Alexis Hart. She recorded the first two points of the set en route to her six second set kills. After a long rally, another Hart kill gave the Gophers a 13-9 lead and an outburst of joy from the crowd. Wisconsin chipped away at the Minnesota lead, tying the set at 14 before a kill from Rollins put the Gophers back on top 15-14 into the media timeout. She added one more on the other side of the break. Her kills jump-started a 7-1 run that gave Minnesota a 21-15 lead. Wisconsin erased the Gophers lead, answering with a 5-0 run that only left them trailing, 22-21. For Minnesota, outside hitter Airi Miyabe answered out of the timeout, her kill putting them up 23-21, and the Gophers would hang on to take the second as Hart closed it out with a kill. 

The Gophers opened the third on a 3-0 run that was quickly erased by a 3-0 Wisconsin run. Pittman had an excellent start to the third, recorded three kills and an ace on the way to the Gophers early 5-3 lead, but that was only the beginning of what would become the longest set of the match. Wisconsin looked to finally gain some momentum with a 22-20 lead, but kills from Rollins and Miyabe tied the set. Miyabe tied the set again at 23, the beginning of trading between the two teams that stretched all the way to 28, before Wisconsin finally scored the last two, needing 30 points to take a grueling set. 

“Our talk on our side was more just wanting to stay in it, not worrying about the scoreboard or anything,” Rollins said. “Just one point at a time. I think we’ve gotten really good at that, got back at the end. We just didn’t get it, but we’ll have another chance.”

The fourth was another that couldn’t be decided in 25. Wisconsin maintained control of the set, holding on to four and five point leads, when the Gophers suddenly erased the deficit. Unfortunately for Minnesota, as they tied it at 24 and forced extra points, they were out of substitutions, leaving 5′-9″ defensive specialist Rachel Kilkelly in the front row. Wisconsin was able to take advantage of that late as they closed out the match in four. 

“We ran out of subs there. As much as you want to think that Bayley [McMenimen] and Rachel [Kilkelly] are the consummate blocking pair,” joked head coach Hugh McCutcheon. “They may be a little deficient in that area. Obviously, now we’re exposing some systemic weaknesses that they could exploit down the stretch and they did.”

Following the loss to Wisconsin, the Gophers will be back in action on Saturday against Michigan. 

“I don’t think it’s heartbreaking, I think we’re just learning,” Rollins said. “We’re still trying to get better and we’re not at the end of the season yet. We’re just trying to push through it and find ways to grow.”