CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – Minnesota’s volleyball team won its first two games Saturday and sprinted into the locker room.
Upon their return the Gophers were relaxed and seemed to be a lock to make their third straight Sweet Sixteen appearance.
There was only one problem.
Minnesota’s opponent, No. 17 Northern Iowa, and its fans remembered the Panthers were also playing for the right to make their second consecutive Sweet Sixteen.
The Gophers won the first two games on Northern Iowa’s home court. The Panthers, inspired coming out of the break, swept the remaining three games to earn the second round win (26-30, 21-30, 30-21, 30-19, 17-15).
Minnesota ended its season with a 19-13 record.
“I guess on the court we lost our communication,” senior Stephanie Hagen said with tears in her eyes. The match ended her Gophers career. “A lot of our energy comes from our communication. We stopped talking for a while and once we stopped doing that we didn’t come back fired up. It took us too long to get that back again.”
Added Minnesota coach Mike Hebert: “They really have it going on here with the environment. It can make it really tough on the visitors.”
Friday, the Gophers swept DePaul in their first round matchup (30-25, 30-27, 30-25) to set up Saturday’s meeting with the Panthers.
Northern Iowa won its 48th consecutive home match. The Panthers have not lost in West Gym since Oct. 31, 1997. The 48-consecutive wins mark the 10th longest streak in NCAA history.
“For anybody who thought that they were going to come to the West Gym and see us get beat 3-0 have never been to a UNI game before,” junior Kim Kester said. One of Northern Iowa’s emotional leaders, Kester could be seen taunting Minnesota players after a few of her team-high 21 kills.
“This is outstanding and I thank our crowd for keeping us in it. It comes down to who wants it more and we wanted it. We wanted to get back to the Sweet Sixteen. With the West Gym crowd behind us I don’t think there was any way we couldn’t win.”
For the first two games of the night, the 1,700 fans packing the small arena were kept in check.
The Gophers came out firing on all cylinders, hitting .387 to Northern Iowa’s .288 percentage after the first two games.
“I was very excited about how we were playing the first two games,” senior Lindsey Berg said. “The feeling on the court, I really didn’t think we were going to change but we did. They obviously played better but we also contributed to that and did not play as well as we did in the first two games.”
Coming out of the break the Panthers and their boisterous supporters were re-energized and prepared for a fight.
Northern Iowa dominated the next two games in the same fashion that Minnesota handled the opening pair. The Panthers hit .424 over the two games while holding the Gophers to a paltry .158 hitting percentage.
With the team huddled around her, a determined Berg attempted to rally the troops before game five.
Minnesota began to play with more urgency as the game was tied 12 times. With Northern Iowa holding a 14-13 lead, Minnesota warded off match point with a Kathy Tilson kill.
The Gophers had match point but Northern Iowa earned the win with a kill, a combined block of a Hagen attempt and a service ace.
“The one thing we talked about during the break was that this match was not over,” Panthers coach Bobbi Peterson said. “These kids have come from behind in a lot of matches this season. We definitely felt that the match was not over. You can say that sometimes and not really feel it, but I felt it and I know this team felt it.”
On Friday, Minnesota came out in control and put DePaul away in a sweep.
“DePaul had come into this tournament on a real hot streak,” Hebert said. “I thought our defense was the difference tonight. We took care of the things that they like to do. We managed to put the ball down a few more times than they did. Digging and offense won the match for us.”
Minnesota outhit DePaul .308 to .239 while outdigging the Demons 45-38.
Hagen led the Gophers with 20 kills on 29 swings with only two errors for a .621 hitting percentage. Meanwhile, freshman Trisha Bratford had a double-double with 15 kills and a team-leading 12 digs. Berg added 49 assists.
“We passed the ball better tonight than we have the last couple of weeks,” Hebert said. “Clearly if we can pass, we can play. We had a few rough spots but overall all of our passers held their own. We are happy with how we controlled the ball.”
ï Minnesota loses three seniors, Berg, Hagen, and Tilson, while junior Carrie Noble won’t return for her senior season. Noble will be graduating and decided to forgo her final year of eligibility.
ï Berg finishes her career with 5,913 assists, good for third all-time in Big Ten and school history. She also finishes the season with 283 service aces placing her third in the Big Ten and second on the Gophers career lists.
ï Hagen ends her career as Minnesota’s all-time leader in hitting percentage while placing sixth on the school’s career kills list with 1,425, and second in blocks with 524.
Brian Hall covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]