Gophers punch ticket to Sweet Sixteen

Minnesota defeated Northern Iowa 3-1.

The Gophers volleyball team celebrates scoring a point on the Fighting Hawks at Maturi Pavilion on Friday, Dec. 1.

Alex Tuthill-Preus

The Gophers volleyball team celebrates scoring a point on the Fighting Hawks at Maturi Pavilion on Friday, Dec. 1.

Owen Mageau

Minnesota swept its first round opponent — North Dakota — on Friday. However, Northern Iowa put up more of a fight in the next round.

After the team went down 1-0 in the match, the Panthers fought back to tie it up heading into the break, but the Panthers struggled in the fourth set and the Gophers took advantage.

The seventh-seeded Gophers (28-5, 15-5 Big Ten) defeated Northern Iowa (27-9, 14-3 Missouri Valley Conference) 3-1 in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday night at Maturi Pavilion. The Gophers won the first set 25-18, lost the second 25-20, won the third 25-19 and won the fourth set 25-17. The win kept Minnesota’s dream of a national championship alive, at least for one more week. 

“I was very proud of our performance tonight,” said head coach Hugh McCutcheon. “[Northern Iowa] is a heck of a team, they played like it tonight, and it was a great battle. [I’m] really proud of our athletes’ ability to maintain composure, execute the plan, make adjustments in match, compete like crazy and get on to the next round.”

After taking a 2-1 lead through three highly competitive sets, Minnesota made it look easy in the fourth set. The team never trailed and cruised to a 24-13 lead before surviving a late Northern Iowa comeback attempt. Senior Molly Lohman sent the Gophers to the next round with a kill on the fifth match point.

“I feel like in the fourth set, we had a lot more energy and were a little more connected,” said sophomore Alexis Hart. “In every rally, we were 100 percent out for every single point no matter what, so I feel like that was the difference between the third set and fourth.”

Just like last night, Minnesota got contributions from multiple players. Five Gophers had nine or more kills. Hart had another strong performance and led the team with 20 kills. Redshirt freshman Regan Pittman was second on the team with 14 kills. Lohman also made her presence felt with seven block assists and one block solo to go along with 11 kills. Senior Dalianliz Rosado’s defense was also a key to victory. Her athleticism was on display as she recorded 26 digs.

As a team, Minnesota had 66 kills, 11 more than Northern Iowa’s total of 55. Minnesota had a .311 attack percentage and recorded 82 digs, collectively.

The young Gophers gained a lot of valuable experience this weekend, with many of them playing in their first NCAA tournament games. It was Pittman’s first time playing in the NCAA tournament and she thinks the experience will help her and her teammates as the tournament goes on.

“This experience has been really humbling,” Pittman said. “With such good leadership from our seniors and juniors, it has really helped guide us to become better.”

Minnesota’s win extends their season to next weekend, when they will play the tenth-seeded USC in Gainesville, Fla. This game was the last the Gophers will play at Maturi Pavilion this season. With that being the case, McCutcheon wanted to say thank you to the fans.

“I thought it was one of our best performances of the year,” McCutcheon said. “Thanks to the fans for coming out; it’s been another great year of volleyball here in Minnesota. We’re so grateful to them, and hopefully they appreciated our last match here.”