Last season the Minnesota volleyball team lost five of its last six matches to fall short of a bid for the NCAA tournament.
While that seems highly unlikely for this year’s Gophers, the team still can’t afford to take their feet off the gas and coast to the finish line.
On the road to begin the final six-match stretch this weekend, Minnesota (23-6, 13-3 Big Ten) came away with a hard-earned split.
After pounding Purdue (15-10, 7-9) on Friday, the Gophers struggled against the Badgers (18-8, 11-5) in Madison on Saturday. Despite only one win, coach Mike Hebert was pleased with the road trip.
“I have felt all along that splitting on the road is a pretty big deal in the Big Ten,” Hebert said.
But what a difference a day made for Minnesota.
The Gophers were sharp against Purdue, but had an off-night against Wisconsin, losing in four games 15-10, 15-9, 10-15, 15-9.
“We played awfully well against Purdue,” Hebert said. “We had a lot of balance and our timing was very good.
“How do you explain 24 hours later that we looked real flat? I think it’s that second night that is so tough.”
The difficulties against Wisconsin came from both sides of the net.
Nicole Branagh led the Gophers with a career-high 39 kills, but the remainder of the Minnesota offense — which combined for only 38 kills — was nonexistent.
“We finally had an off-match,” Hebert said. “Nicole was the exception, she was just on fire. But we couldn’t get on track with anything else offensively.”
But the loss can’t be solely attributed to the lack of a balanced Gophers offense. Wisconsin served well and led an attack which included five players with double-figure kills. The Badgers also contained Minnesota’s offense by forcing 31 errors.
“Wisconsin was a different team than we saw at home (in September),” Hebert said. “We couldn’t stop their middle attack and they passed awfully well. They had a great night defensively too.”
Branagh said the Gophers were to blame for the loss.
“We didn’t come out as a team to play, and Wisconsin capitalized on that,” Branagh said.
On Friday, Minnesota beat up on the Boilermakers in West Lafayette 15-12, 15-8, 15-2.
Offensively the Gophers were led by Branagh’s 21 kills and setter Lindsey Berg’s 53 assists.
On the other side of the net, Minnesota’s defense outblocked Purdue 14-4 and forced the Boilermakers to make 25 errors.
“We controlled the match very well,” Branagh said. “We had good set distribution and good blocking.”
A split on this roadtrip won’t hurt the Gophers. But when the single-elimination NCAA tournament arrives in early December, Minnesota won’t be able to afford to have an off-night like the one against Wisconsin.
Of the Gophers’ six losses, five have came away from the Sports Pavilion. That hammers home the importance of the Gophers hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA’s.
“No question teams play a lot better when you’re at home,” Hebert said. “Home court advantage is significant when get into the playoffs.”
John R. Carter covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]