Minnesota starts conference play 2-0

The Gophers swept Illinois and beat Northwestern in four sets.

Minnesota outside hitter Katherine Harms plays against NDSU on Sept. 10 at the Sports Pavilion.

Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo

Minnesota outside hitter Katherine Harms plays against NDSU on Sept. 10 at the Sports Pavilion.

Megan Ryan

The Gophers’ Big Ten season started one set short of perfection this weekend in Illinois.

Minnesota dominated No. 20 Illinois in three sets Friday and managed a comeback win Sunday against Northwestern, which had received votes for a national ranking.

“The first weekend in conference play … you never know what you’re going to get into,” senior outside hitter Katherine Harms said. “Luckily everything fell into place.”

The Illini struggled against the Gophers, losing 25-17 in each of the first two sets. Illinois tied Minnesota twice in the third set but ultimately lost 25-23.

Minnesota ranked third in the Big Ten in service aces prior to this weekend and had six players record seven aces throughout the match.

Although the team also had six service errors, freshman libero Lindsey Lawmaster — who had two aces in the match — said Minnesota tried to establish itself as a good serving team.

“[It’s] a great factor for the game,” Lawmaster said. “It is very intimidating [for the other team] to know that your team can get the ball in consistently and kind of mess up the passers. It’s definitely an advantage.”

Harms also had an ace in the match, but she said she would rather the team be known for consistent serving than aces.

Serving wasn’t the only skill on display for the Gophers. Before these matches, Minnesota ranked fifth in the nation in kills per set and first in hitting percentage.

Harms led her team with 17 kills, while junior middle blocker Tori Dixon had 11 kills and a .688 hitting percentage.

Lawmaster said the Gophers’ attack helped command the game.

“It’s just awesome to know that we had total control of the game, and we just played our best,” Lawmaster said.

Head coach Hugh McCutcheon said he agreed that his team dictated play well.

“I just thought we played in control, both emotionally and technically,” McCutcheon said. “I think we executed at a high level.”

McCutcheon said he pays attention to not only his team’s level of play but also that of individual players. Junior setter Alexandra Palmer earned the starting position over senior setter Mia Tabberson entering the weekend because her statistics were better, McCutcheon said.

“For them to split it … those numbers need to be pretty much a wash. And right now [Palmer] is getting it done at a little bit higher level,” McCutcheon said.

“They’re still sharing it a little bit, but certainly [Palmer] is getting the bigger piece of the pie at this point.”

Palmer had a team-high 44 assists against Illinois and 54 against Northwestern. Tabberson played only one set against the Illini but made appearances in all four sets against the Wildcats.

The Gophers didn’t have quite as easy of a time on Northwestern’s home court. Minnesota had to regroup after dropping the first set 25-17 but took the next three 25-18, 25-21 and 25-15.

McCutcheon attributed the slow start partly to the fact that Northwestern had the chance to see Minnesota play Illinois on the Big Ten Network two days earlier.

“In the first set, we were doing what we were doing against Illinois,” McCutcheon said. “And all of a sudden, it wasn’t working.”

Lawmaster said her team lacked the intensity to match the Wildcats in the first set.

“Northwestern was playing really well,” Lawmaster said. “They took away good shots, and they were making more runs than we were. They really came out with a lot of fire, and we weren’t really that ready.”

Minnesota had nine attacking errors in the first set alone. The team ended the match with 18 attacking errors and 10 service errors, an increase from the win at Illinois.

Lawmaster said the change from the first set to the last three wasn’t a big technical overhaul or a pep talk from McCutcheon.

“We just realized that if they were going to play at this level the entire time, we had to step it up,” Lawmaster said.

Minnesota will return home Friday and Saturday to face Ohio State and Penn State at the Sports Pavilion.