Carrying momentum into the NCAA tournament is huge — a fact to which the Gophers volleyball team can attest.
Minnesota is just two years removed from its 2009 Final Four run when it won three consecutive matches to end the regular season and then four matches to start the tournament.
As this year’s Gophers (18-11) ride their own three-match winning streak into the Big Dance, interim head coach Laura Bush said she sees similarities to the 2009 Final Four squad.
“I know the team is very aware of what it takes to make it to the very end,” Bush said. “Everyone’s invested, and that was a big part of the 2009 season — that everyone was invested to the very end.”
Minnesota, the No. 13 seed in the 64-team tournament, will host the first four rounds at the Sports Pavilion, starting with Friday’s first-round match against NDSU.
The Summit League champion Bison (26-8) have yet to defeat a ranked team in 2011.
They came close twice, losing in five sets to then-No. 17 Iowa State on Sept. 10 and in five sets to then-No. 11 Northern Iowa on Oct. 17.
Since the loss to Northern Iowa, NDSU has reeled off 10 consecutive wins and has dropped just six sets in that time.
“They’re feeling very good about themselves,” Bush said. “They played here last year, they played here in the spring — they’re going to be comfortable in the Pavilion, especially with a lot of their team being from Minnesota.”
In last season’s NCAA first round, the Gophers defeated the Bison 25-21, 25-21, 25-12 at the Sports Pavilion.
“They played us tough last year in the first two sets, and then we were able to really run away with it in the third,” Bush said. “I expect that they have the same personality of being fighters and competitors.”
Leading NDSU’s charge is middle blocker Megan Lambertson, who hit .404 on the season with a 2.81 kills per set average. She had six kills in 14 attempts in last season’s loss to Minnesota.
The Bison are also a strong serving team. Five players totaled at least 25 service aces on the season. NDSU had 183 service aces as a team — 60 more than Minnesota — although those aces came against significantly weaker competition.
In the second half of the season, the Gophers have also served well. Bush said continuing to serve and pass well will be the key to defeating NDSU.
Bush also said that she is looking for sophomore Ashley Wittman — who was named Tuesday to the All-Big Ten First Team — to raise her level of play in the postseason.
“You look at other [left-side hitters] who have been great throughout the nation in previous years — this is their breaking out moment,” Bush said, “and she’s capable of doing that.”
Wittman ranks second in the Big Ten in 2011 with a 4.52 kills per set average. She has remained a force throughout the season despite facing multiple blockers on many of her attacks.
“I think we’re on a pretty good path right now,” Wittman said. “The past couple of matches have been pretty good.”
In addition to winning and playing solid volleyball, Minnesota seems to have found an eight- to nine-player rotation on which it can rely.
Mia Tabberson has started at setter in each of the team’s last three matches, replacing freshman Kellie McNeil.
“I think when Mia sets, she has a better connection with the middles,” sophomore middle blocker Tori Dixon said. “I think it helps our offense and develops it more.”
McNeil has been useful as a serving specialist, however. So has sophomore defensive specialist Steffi Sooter, who has also taken on some passing responsibilities.
Meanwhile, outside hitters Hailey Cowles and Katherine Harms have shown improvements in the second half of the season.
Wittman, Dixon, Ariana Filho and Jessica Granquist have been solid all season long, and will likely have to carry a large load for Minnesota to repeat its trip to the Final Four.
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