Branagh spikes way into record books against Iowa

by Brian Stensaas

COLUMBUS, Ohio — While Nicole Branagh smacked each of her 23 kills Saturday night at St. John Arena, she not only helped the seventh-ranked Gophers battle No. 17 Ohio State, she added tally marks to the Big Ten and Minnesota record books.
The 6-foot-1 senior racked up 33 kills last Wednesday a 3-1 win over Iowa to become the Big Ten and Minnesota all-time leader in kills. Branagh surpassed 1996 Minnesota alumnus Katrien DeDecker — who finished her career with 2,300 — and now has 2,326.
Branagh said her accomplishment was not earned alone.
“It is really exciting but I couldn’t have done it without the whole team out there,” she said. “I’ve gotten great sets and passing all the time.”
With Branagh topping DeDecker, Minnesota now boasts three of the top five all-time leaders in kills, all coached by Minnesota’s Mike Hebert.
“The fact of the matter is, having a huge kill leader usually means an unbalanced offense,” Hebert said. “But if you’ve got a big shotgun, shoot it. And that was the case with Katrien and certainly with Nicole. I don’t think it’s a theory that Minnesota has big outside hitters, that’s just how it worked out.”
No. 17 Ohio State sported five players with 10 or more kills in its five-game win over Minnesota on Saturday. The high number of go-to hitters caused the Gophers to guess which player to block closely, leaving tough one-on-one matchups.
“As a coach, I have a great appreciation for what they can do offensively,” Hebert said. “They set so low and so fast it is stressful. They passed a lot better than we expected them to.”
Adding to Ohio State’s offensive attack was the welcomed return of sophomore setter Katie Virtue. Out of practice over three weeks with a left foot injury, Virtue played Saturday and guided the Buckeye attack, shutting down Minnesota’s hopes for a share of the Big Ten title.
Her injury did show its ugly head, however. On two occasions, Virtue was not quick to respond to a returned volley, favoring her left foot.
Home Sweet Home
The NCAA tournament field of 64 teams was announced Sunday night and as expected, Minnesota will be hosting the first and second rounds at the Sports Pavilion. It was selected as the second seed in the West region behind Hawaii.
The Gophers will play Robert Morris from Pittsburgh on Thursday night at 8 p.m. The Colonials were the champion of the Northeast Conference and received an automatic bid to the tournament.
Duke and Arizona State were the other two teams selected to travel to Minneapolis this weekend. The two teams play Thursday night at 6. The winner of both Thursday matches will meet Friday night.