Gophers volleyball season ends with Sweet 16 loss to Iowa State

Minnesota lost the last three sets to a Cyclones team that dominated on defense.

Outside hitter Ashley Wittman spikes the ball past Washington Saturday at the Sports Pavilion. Minnesota beat Washington in five sets and will advance to the NCAA regionals.

Marisa Wojcik

Outside hitter Ashley Wittman spikes the ball past Washington Saturday at the Sports Pavilion. Minnesota beat Washington in five sets and will advance to the NCAA regionals.

by Charlie Armitz

Another year, another heartbreaking Sweet 16 loss for the Gophers volleyball team.

Minnesota’s rollercoaster 2011 season came to an end Friday night in a four-set loss to Iowa State. The Gophers won the opening set but lost the last three to a Cyclones team that lived up to its No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The fourth set featured 15 ties, six lead changes and quality volleyball from start to finish. The Cyclones saved three set points and and needed four match points of their own to clinch the 18-25, 25-23, 25-15, 31-29 victory.

“This is the kind of match you hope to play in the tournament, where two great teams are going at it,” Cyclones head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch said. “You just try to outlast each other. … We were just fortunate to score a couple more points than they did.”

Iowa State had 16 blocks to Minnesota’s eight. Three came in the first seven points of the fourth set, which gave the Cyclones a 6-1 lead.

Minnesota rallied to tie the score at 8-8 before Iowa State made another run. A second Gophers comeback brought the fourth set even at 19-19, but the Cyclones never trailed by more than one point thereafter.

After the Gophers won the opening set and took a 3-0 lead to start the second, Iowa State turned the tide. The Cyclones used a 6-0 run in the second and third sets to seize the momentum, which they never seemed to give up.

“They started serving a little bit tougher and got us out of system a bit,” senior outside hitter Hailey Cowles said. “It took us a little bit of time to adjust to their tougher serves.”

Cowles had 15 kills, which tied for a team-high. But she struggled with her passing late in the second set, when Minnesota had a brief chance to regain its edge.

The Cyclones capitalized, grabbing a 19-15 lead and then holding on after the Gophers made a run to tie the set at 23-23.

“I think we did a good job of fighting back the last three games, but they played really well,” Cowles said. “They started to just attack us more than they did in the first set.”

In the process, they held All Big-Ten honoree Tori Dixon to four kills and a .000 hitting percentage.

Poor passing limited Dixon’s effectiveness at times, but so did Iowa State’s presence on the other side of the net.

“We have two very, very physical middles,” Johnson-Lynch said. “If they have just a little bit of time to get up, they’re going to cause problems for the middles on the other side. … We really can make teams uncomfortable because we’re pretty physical that way.”

The Cyclones’ two middles combined for 8.5 blocks. Their two primary outside hitters — Carly Jenson and Victoria Hurtt — combined for 34 kills on .321 hitting.

Sophomore Ashley Wittman had 15 kills for Minnesota on .286 hitting. Junior Katherine Harms, who had a career-high 29 kills in the Gophers’ second-round win against Washington, was held to 14 kills and a .162 hitting percentage.

The Gophers had eight aces and 11 service errors, and their aggressive serving seemed to throw Iowa State off early in the match.

“Everyone was serving well, and when they were out of system, we could definitely take advantage of it,” junior setter Mia Tabberson said. “But they were just in system a few more times than we were.”

Both teams were held without an ace in a fourth set that had eight service errors — three by Minnesota, five by Iowa State. Improved passing kept the Gophers in the match — until match point, when a slightly errant pass allowed Iowa State to set up its block and stay in the rally.

Minnesota lost in the Sweet 16 last year to California after having late leads in all three sets.

This year, they had to rally just to stay with Iowa State after losing their early edge.

“I saw a lot of good fighting out there,” Gophers head coach Laura Bush. “We just didn’t respond very well to [Iowa State]. We tried to throw some different sub lineups in there, and that didn’t quite fit, and then their outside hitters got hot and were able to take advantage of our block.”

Minnesota also lost for only the second time ever in an NCAA tournament match at the Sports Pavilion (16-2). Both losses have come to Iowa State.