Winning nine consecutive sets is a good way to end the regular season.
It’s an even better way to head into the NCAA tournament — and that’s exactly what the No. 19 Gophers volleyball team will do after sweeping Wisconsin and Indiana at home over Thanksgiving weekend to close the Big Ten season.
Despite being ranked No. 19, Minnesota received the No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament when the 64-team bracket was announced Sunday.
The Gophers (18-11) will host Summit League champions North Dakota State (25-8) for the second consecutive season in the first round of the tournament Dec. 2 at the Sports Pavilion.
In 2010, Minnesota defeated the Bison 25-21, 25-21, 25-12 in the first round.
“They’ve always played us strong,” Gophers interim head coach Laura Bush said of NDSU. “They have a lot of players from the Twin Cities area that like to be home. They’re going to have a nice fan following, and we’re going to have to do our work to be prepared.”
The winner of Minnesota-NDSU plays either Western Michigan or perennial volleyball powerhouse Washington on Dec. 3 at the Sports Pavilion.
The Huskies (23-7) were ranked No. 11 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association poll but did not receive an NCAA tournament seed. That’s likely because their Ratings Percentage Index — a measure of a team’s strength of schedule — was 35th in the nation.
Washington won the 2005 National Championship and made the Final Four in 2006. Last season, it upset Nebraska en route to an Elite Eight finish.
“They’ve always been a good squad,” senior libero Jessica Granquist said. “They’re a well-coached and well-trained team, and it’ll be an exciting game if we get past the first round.”
Minnesota will also host the third and fourth rounds of the Minneapolis regional. If the Gophers make it that far, they could play No. 4 seed Iowa State or No. 5 seed Purdue.
“I’m excited to play tough teams,” Bush said. “I’m ready for us to get back into the heat of it and see where we can go in the tournament.”
Minnesota had an 8-3 record at the Sports Pavilion in 2011, including two wins against Texas, the tournament’s top-seeded team.
Gophers finish 5th in Big Ten
Minnesota finished Big Ten play Friday by defeating unranked Indiana 25-13, 25-13, 25-18 at the Sports Pavilion. The win vaulted Minnesota into fifth place in the Big Ten with an 11-9 record.
Senior Ariana Filho had seven kills and no errors in nine swings in the senior night sweep.
But it was Hailey Cowles whose all-around game shined. The senior outside hitter had 11 kills, hit .333 and added a team-high 11 digs and two service aces.
“It was just one of those nights where everything kind of went my way,” Cowles said. “I thought we were able to pass in system for most of the night, and I thought [setter Mia Tabberson] did a good job of distributing the offense very evenly.”
Cowles was a key part of the Gophers’ NCAA Final Four run in 2009. She has struggled with her hitting and passing throughout 2011, but Bush said she still wants her to be a part of the offense.
“We always want to get Hailey more involved,” Bush said. “I love how Hailey hits, how she uses the block — it keeps a lot of other hitters open at later times in a match. It requires some consistent passing on our part.”
Minnesota passed well all night against Indiana, allowing just two service aces. The Gophers also out-blocked the Hoosiers 10-6.
Blocking has been a struggle for Minnesota all season, but it has shown slight improvement during the second half of the Big Ten schedule.
“We work on blocking a lot every day in practice,” Cowles said. “I think we’re finally honing into the system that we’re trying to play, and really working on knowing our scouting reports and what hitters are trying to do.”
Minnesota played a much closer match with unranked Wisconsin on Wednesday, but held on for a 25-21, 25-21, 28-26 win.
The Gophers had a five-point lead in all three sets, but Wisconsin (16-15, 8-11 Big Ten) made a run in each of them, forcing Minnesota to use timeouts and regroup before closing sets.
The Badgers trailed 17-22 in the third set when they went on a 6-0 run to take a one-point lead. Wisconsin saved a pair of set points and had a set point of its own — then the Gophers closed the match by winning three consecutive points.
Cowles had two of her five kills in the third set — one on Wisconsin’s set point and one to win the match. She added a team-high 19 digs.
Tori Dixon had 14 kills in 21 attempts with no errors in the win. She added six kills on 12 attempts against Indiana.
In her last four matches, Dixon has hit .415 with 59 kills in 118 attempts.
“Me and [Tabberson] have a good connection,” Dixon said after Wednesday’s win. “It definitely helps everything run a lot smoother.”
Tabberson took over the setter role Nov. 19 against Iowa and has made an immediate impact with her ability to set Dixon and Filho, the team’s two middle blockers.
“It’s awesome [to get the middles involved],” sophomore outside hitter Ashley Wittman said after Wednesday’s win. “It takes the load off of us, and then our offense is spread, and it makes it harder for the other team.”
Wittman had 14 kills Wednesday and 11 on Friday. She has now posted 10 or more kills in 24 consecutive matches.
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