Gophers volleyball picks up two wins against Northwestern

All-American Stephanie Samedy and the Gophers dominated to get back on track in their final road trip of the season.

Outside hitter Stephanie Samedy spikes the ball at Maturi Pavilion on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. The Gophers swept South Carolina in all three sets.

Ellen Schmidt

Outside hitter Stephanie Samedy spikes the ball at Maturi Pavilion on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. The Gophers swept South Carolina in all three sets.

Brendan O'Brien, Sports Reporter

The No. 4 Minnesota volleyball team had a bounce-back weekend against Northwestern, taking care of business against the Wildcats on both Friday and Saturday.

While the Gophers have been trying to find their groove again after having five matches postponed and losing players to injury, they caught the Wildcats at a time when they had not played for three straight weeks.

“I thought our ability to control a lot of the things we could was great and we took a lot of really good swings,” Gophers head coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “Everybody all around just played great volleyball this weekend.”

Gophers sweep Friday: 25-14, 25-21 and 25-14

Despite a power outage delaying the start of the match, Minnesota came out quickly and applied the pressure early at the net both offensively and defensively. After winning the first set handily, Minnesota pulled out a back-and-forth battle second set in which hitters Stephanie Samedy and Taylor Landfair each added four kills in the set.

Northwestern had its eyes on forcing a fourth set and took an early four-point lead in the third, forcing McCutcheon to call a timeout. Coming out of the break, the Gophers hit a switch, going on a 9-0 run and closing out the set on a 20-5 run.

But instead of wanting his team to have the ability to flip the switch at will, McCutcheon said playing well consistently is something important that this team has done throughout the season.

“We’re not interested in finding an extra gear. I do think the ebb and flow that happens in the game is a real thing,” McCutcheon said. “We talked a little bit in that timeout about getting back to doing our thing versus somehow getting caught up in [Northwestern’s] emotions.”

Samedy and Landfair finished with 12 and seven kills respectively while middle blocker Regan Pittman added eight. Defensively, the Gophers held a block party in Evanston, Illinois, as they amassed 14 blocks to Northwestern’s four. Rachel Kilkelly led the match with 10 digs.

Minnesota wins in four sets Saturday: 19-25, 25-15, 25-15 and 25-20

The second match of the weekend Saturday took a different path but ended in the same result for the Gophers. After a strong start and finish Friday night, Minnesota was unable to overcome an early Northwestern run and dropped the first set of Saturday’s match. Challenges and replays in the set went the way of the Gophers, as McCutcheon won his only challenge of the set while the Wildcats lost their only challenge, but Minnesota struggled handling the attacks from the likes of sophomore Temi Thomas-Ailara and other Northwestern hitters.

After dropping the first, Minnesota responded well in the following sets. Three consecutive aces by Pittman, along with five blocks, helped propel the Gophers as they took the second set handily.

Set three was just as dominating for the Gophers who opened up with five quick points again while Pittman was serving and saw virtually no major speed bumps along the way. Pittman finished with five total aces in the match.

The Wildcats would not go away easily in the fourth, trading points throughout the final set, but it was the Gophers who ultimately came out victorious to improve to 13-2 on the season. Minnesota’s offense could not be stopped at the end as the team recorded a .458 hitting percentage in the fourth set, the highest of the match.

Shaffmaster back on court

While the Gophers were still without libero C.C. McGraw, Melani Shaffmaster returned to the lineup after missing the match against Wisconsin due to an upper body injury. The freshman setter finished with 60 assists, 15 digs and six kills between the two matches.

With Shaffmaster in the lineup, the Gophers were able to return to their usual 5-1 system they had been running for the first 12 matches of the season.

“Obviously, she contributes a lot. With her in, we went back to the 5-1 system we had been running for almost 10 weeks… I thought it was good to see the group settle back in and get after it,” McCutcheon said.

Minnesota has now won 11 consecutive matches against Northwestern. The Gophers will close out the regular season against Iowa next weekend at Maturi Pavilion.