Minnesota volleyball falls to Pittsburgh in Sweet 16

In their third loss of the season, the Gophers see their season come to an end in the Sweet 16.

The+Gophers+huddle+to+celebrate+defeating+Oral+Roberts+three+sets+to+none+at+the+Maturi+Pavilion+on+Saturday%2C+Sept.+21%2C+2019.

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 saw its season come to an end Sunday in the Sweet 16 against the surging Pittsburgh Panthers, losing a five-set battle 25-21, 23-25, 25-20, 21-25 and 11-15.

Instead of making it back to the Final Four, the Gophers will now be leaving the tournament bubble of Omaha, Nebraska, maybe a little earlier than expected by Gophers fans and volleyball experts.

“Obviously, [we’re] disappointed. We’re a good volleyball team, and I still believe we were good enough to be one of the last teams standing, and that’s just the nature of this event when it’s one and done,” Gophers head coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “I’m really proud of our team for the whole body of work given how strange this season has been for everybody. It’s an occupational hazard. Sometimes you lose when your life is competing.”

Before facing Pittsburgh, McCutcheon and the rest of the Gophers squad knew there was potential for this to be a tight battle through and through. The Panthers had not lost a match since Oct. 25 to Louisville, when the Panthers played their fall portion of the schedule.

The Panthers carried a 14-match win streak into the tournament, including two straight-set victories in the tournament against Long Island University and No. 14 Utah. Minnesota was prepared, however, having gone 4-0 in five-set matches this season leading up to the tournament.

The Gophers used a pair of runs – a 6-0 and 5-0 run – early in the first set to pull ahead of Pittsburgh and take the set. The Panthers continued to throw their punches at Minnesota, but every time it seemed like the Gophers were able to respond with a timely kill from Stephanie Samedy, Taylor Landfair or Adanna Rollins.

The second set saw somewhat of a role reversal between Minnesota and Pittsburgh, as the Gophers were the team to use both timeouts early in the set to try and regroup. The teams continued trading points, and Rollins played well down the stretch of the set to help the Gophers tie it at 23. But Minnesota never put together a run to overcome Pitt and fell after never leading in the set.

No Gophers fan would have thought Minnesota lost the second set the way the team started the third. Pittsburgh continued to fight throughout the set, but a 5-0 run to open the set gave the Gophers the advantage the whole way through as Samedy closed it out with four of the final five points in the set. Play at the net was a large component of the Gophers’ success in the third, as they recorded five blocks.

Minnesota looked to put the match away in the five-set, but Pittsburgh’s middle blocker Sabrina Starks would not let the Panthers go away easily. Starks added four kills and a couple of blocks that came in key moments in the fourth set to propel Pittsburgh to a four-point lead and forced McCutcheon to call a timeout. Just like the second set, the Gophers could not find the run they were looking for to put the match on ice in four sets to advance to the Elite Eight.

After trading points and being tied at six to begin the final set, Pittsburgh went on a 4-0 run that Minnesota could not overcome. The Gophers could have potentially stolen momentum after a point the Panthers thought they won was forced to be replayed, but they could not capitalize and allowed a service ace from Zoi Faki.

Minnesota would continue to fight, only to see its season come to an abrupt end and watch Pitt reach the Elite Eight for the first time in its program’s history.

“We were just struggling to get any kind of offensive rhythm, and I think that was the story of the fifth set,” McCutcheon said. “We just couldn’t side out at the required rate.”

Samedy led all players with 23 kills and added nine digs, while Rollins and Landfair each had 15 kills. On Pitt’s side of the court, Chinaza Ndee and Chiamaka Nwokolo finished with 19 and 13 kills, respectively, while Kayla Lund added 17 kills and 10 digs.

“Of course it stings. As a team, we gave it our all, and we fought as hard as we could,” Samedy said. “It’s volleyball. You compete, and sometimes you lose, so I think you just have to come to terms with that.”