Minnesota upset by No. 24 Northwestern

by Lindsay Guentzel

The 16th-ranked Gophers became the third of the Big TenâÄôs top teams to suffer an upset this weekend, falling on the road to No. 24 Northwestern on Sunday afternoon. The Gophers took the first set 25-20, but couldnâÄôt hold off a dominant rally by the WildcatsâÄîlosing the last three sets 21-25, 22-25, and 21-25. The match was an important one for the Gophers, who would have taken the top spot in the Big Ten if they had won, given that both No. 4 Penn State and No. 6 IllinoisâÄîwho came into the weekend tied atop the conference along with Michigan and NorthwesternâÄîboth lost. âÄúWe did talk a little bit about how we could come out on top [with a win]âÄù, sophomore Mia Tabberson said. âÄúWe still have a great chance to compete for that Big Ten title.âÄù Like the Gophers, both Illinois and Penn State lost on the road, a reminder of how dangerous home-court advantage can be for the conferenceâÄôs elite. âÄú[Home-court advantage] is huge,âÄù Hebert said. âÄúAlways has been and I think it is even more of a factor this year.âÄù The Gophers, now 4-2 in the Big Ten, had 30 hitting errors against NorthwesternâÄîan unusually high amount for the teamâÄîand struggled on their defensive blocking. âÄúWe didnâÄôt play with a great deal of urgency,âÄù head coach Mike Hebert said. âÄúAt least not as much as Northwestern did.âÄù Sophomore Tabitha Love and freshman Ashley Wittman combined for 28 kills, 20 digs and three blocks for the Gophers, with Wittman also notching a career-best three service aces. Looking ahead at the rest of the season, Hebert said he is unconcerned with the teamâÄôs struggles on Sunday and is confident they will continue to improve. âÄúNorthwestern is a very good team this year,âÄù he said. âÄúWe just didnâÄôt execute the little things.âÄù The loss to Northwestern was the first time Minnesota has used the 6-2 formationâÄîwhich features two setters rather than their standard strategy of having oneâÄîsomething theyâÄôve been trying out in practice. The formation allows setters to play the ball from more positions, and thus more assist opportunities. Junior Stephanie Nucci had 25 assists, while Tabberson added in 23 assists for the Gophers. âÄúIt worked pretty well today,âÄù Tabberson said. âÄúIt wasnâÄôt much of a change offensively.âÄù The Gophers have an even bigger road challenge next weekend, when they travel to play defending-national-champions Penn State on Friday. âÄúYou can definitely tell when you play in a different gym,âÄù Tabberson said. âÄúRegardless, youâÄôre going to have to get over it.âÄù