Another year, another heartbreaking Sweet 16 loss for the Gophers volleyball team.
Minnesota’s rollercoaster 2011 season came to an end Friday night in a four-set loss to Iowa State. The No. 13-seeded Gophers won the opening set but lost the last three to a Cyclones team that lived up to its No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The fourth set featured 15 ties, six lead changes and quality volleyball from start to finish. The Cyclones saved three set points and needed four match points of their own to clinch the 18-25, 25-23, 25-15, 31-29 victory.
“This is the kind of match you hope to play in the tournament, where two great teams are going at it,” Cyclones head coach Christy Johnson-Lynch said. “You just try to outlast each other.”
Iowa State had 16 blocks to Minnesota’s eight. Three came in the first seven points of the fourth set, which gave the Cyclones a 6-1 lead.
Minnesota rallied to tie the score at 8-8 before Iowa State made another run. A second Gophers comeback brought the fourth set even at 19-19, but the Cyclones never trailed by more than one point thereafter.
The turning point of the match, however, occurred much earlier. After the Gophers won the first set, Iowa State shifted its rotation to start the second set and took a 6-3 lead.
That was all the Cyclones needed to steal the momentum, which they never seemed to relinquish.
“They started serving a little bit tougher and got us out of system a bit,” senior outside hitter Hailey Cowles said. “It took us a little bit of time to adjust to their tougher serves.”
Cowles had 15 kills, which tied for a team-high. But she struggled with her passing late in the second set, when Minnesota had a brief chance to regain its edge.
The Cyclones capitalized, grabbing a 19-15 lead and then holding on after Minnesota made a run to tie the set at 23-23.
In the third set, the Gophers’ attempt to shift their own rotation backfired as Iowa State jumped ahead 15-6 and never looked back.
“I think we did a good job of fighting back the last three [sets], but they played really well,” Cowles said. “They started to just attack us more than they did in the first set.”
In the process, the Cyclones held All Big-Ten honoree Tori Dixon to four kills and a season-low .000 hitting percentage.
Poor passing limited Dixon’s effectiveness at times but so did Iowa State’s presence at the net.
“We have two very, very physical middles,” Johnson-Lynch said. “If they have just a little bit of time to get up, they’re going to cause problems for the middles on the other side. ... We really can make teams uncomfortable because we’re pretty physical that way.”
The Cyclones’ two middle blockers combined for 8.5 blocks. Their two left-side hitters — Carly Jenson and Victoria Hurtt — combined for 34 kills on .321 hitting.
Iowa State also limited Minnesota’s two big guns, Ashley Wittman and Katherine Harms, to 29 kills on .222 hitting. In the Gophers’ second-round win against Washington, Wittman and Harms combined for 52 kills and hit .291.
The Gophers had eight aces and 11 service errors, and their aggressive serving seemed to throw Iowa State off early in the match.
“Everyone was serving well, and when they were out of system, we could definitely take advantage of it,” junior setter Mia Tabberson said. “But they were just in system a few more times than we were.”
Both teams were held without an ace in a fourth set that had eight service errors — three by Minnesota, five by Iowa State. Sharper passing kept the Gophers in the match — until match point, when a slightly errant pass allowed Iowa State to set up its block and stay in the rally.
Minnesota lost in the Sweet 16 last year to California after having late leads in all three sets.
This year, it had to rally just to stay with Iowa State after losing its early edge.
“I saw a lot of good fighting out there,” said Gophers interim head coach Laura Bush. “We just didn’t respond very well to [Iowa State]. We tried to throw some different sub lineups in there, and that didn’t quite fit, and then their outside hitters got hot and were able to take advantage of our block.”
Minnesota also lost for only the second time ever in an NCAA tournament match at the Sports Pavilion (16-2). Both losses have come to Iowa State.
The Cyclones (25-6) lost to Florida State in Saturday’s regional final.
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