Gophers volleyball wins first match of NCAA tournament

In a competitive match, Minnesota took down Georgia Tech in straight sets and will now advance to the Regional Semifinals.

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Kamaan Richards

The Gophers huddle to celebrate defeating Oral Roberts three sets to none at the Maturi Pavilion on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

Brendan O'Brien

The No. 3 seeded Gophers volleyball team came out with a three-set victory Thursday night against Georgia Tech in the team’s first match of the NCAA tournament.

Despite sweeping the Yellow Jackets, Minnesota was dealt with competitive sets to open the tournament, winning 25-19, 25-21 and 25-18. Nevertheless, the Gophers found a groove offensively as the match continued and were able to advance to its sixth consecutive Regional semifinals appearance.

The Gophers were led by outside hitters Adanna Rollins and Taylor Landfair out of the gates, who each recorded four kills in the first set. Georgia Tech was able to get into a rhythm early in the set to apply the pressure on Minnesota, but Minnesota went on a run after a couple of blocks in a row by the Gophers.

Despite being Minnesota’s primary offensive option throughout the whole season, Big Ten Player of the Year Stephanie Samedy did not get her first kills until two of the final four points to close out the set.

Led by Mariana Brambilla, the Yellow Jackets came out with a strong second set to force a back-and-forth battle with the Gophers. Brambilla was the leader of the match in kills with 16 and caused problems for the Gophers throughout each set.

“We knew Georgia Tech was going to be a really good team,” Rollins said. “Our motto was the other team is trying to take something away from us, so we’re thinking that each point. That really helped us in the long run.”

But the Gophers’ trio of hitters also came out swinging and got into a groove as the match waned, as Samedy and Rollins finished with 13 kills apiece while Landfair added 11 in her first NCAA tournament match. The final set began again as another close fight between Minnesota and Georgia Tech, but the Gophers hitting came alive and closed out the match on a 6-0 run, as Rollins terminated four of the final points.

“I thought [Rollins] was really good and steady in all phases of the game, but particularly strong on offense. She hit with a lot of good range, both in system and out of system,” Gophers head coach Hugh McCutcheon said.

Another player for the Gophers who appeared unphased by her tournament debut was setter Melani Shaffmaster. In her fifth match back from injury, Shaffmaster dished out 32 assists and led the match with 16 digs along with a few tricky kills to give Minnesota key points in the match.

“It was a really good start in her first NCAA tournament. The team hit for a good number and she made really good choices, kept hitters in rhythm a lot and did a nice job,” McCutcheon said.

Making it to this point is just scratching the surface of what the Gophers want to achieve this season, but given the odd circumstances of this season and this year’s tournament, McCutcheon is impressed with the squad’s resiliency throughout the year.

“I’m just really proud of how the team is managing the [different year]. There’s been nothing typical about this year. We reported in August and here we are still, playing some really good volleyball at a time where we need to,” McCutcheon said.

Minnesota’s run at another Final Four and potentially its first national championship will continue on Sunday against the winner between Pittsburgh and Utah in the Regional semifinal round of the tournament. Utah came into the tournament as the No. 14 seed in the field, while Pittsburgh was one of the 32 unseeded teams in the field, having advanced past the first round by sweeping LIU.