The Gophers volleyball team split road matches Friday in Iowa and Sunday in Nebraska.
Minnesota defeated the Hawkeyes in four sets and reversed that result against the Cornhuskers.
At first, the No. 10 Gophers looked more than capable of unseating No. 3 Nebraska.
They won the first set 25-18 on the back of the team’s collective .552 hitting percentage. Combined with four service aces and no errors, the team dealt Nebraska a rare first-set loss.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, the momentum didn’t continue into the second set. Minnesota tried to bridge a five-point gap and even tied the score three times late in the set, but it ended up on the wrong side of a 27-25 score line.
In the second set, Minnesota’s hitting percentage fell to .227 due in part to Nebraska’s six blocks compared to the Gophers’ two. Minnesota’s five service errors also contributed.
Nebraska had its share of unforced errors, including several net violations, but head coach Hugh McCutcheon said it balanced out in the end.
“We got called with … some calls that seemed pretty mysterious to us,” McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon said some touches and double hits calls at crucial points didn’t help his team.
The Cornhuskers again created a big lead in the third set. Down 21-14, the Gophers made a 7-0 run. However, they couldn’t close out the set and lost 25-23.
The Gophers focused on neutralizing Nebraska senior setter Lauren Cook’s offensive ability in practice leading up to the weekend match, but it didn’t show much.
“We struggled a lot against her,” junior middle blocker Tori Dixon said. “We never really caught on to that to be honest.”
McCutcheon said his team kept Cook at bay during the first sets but lost control toward the end.
“I thought at the beginning we had a pretty good read on it,” McCutcheon said. “But as things got a little away from us, she took advantage of some of that hesitancy, I think, and was able to get a few more kills.”
Cook finished with eight kills and a .667 hitting percentage.
Minnesota’s hitting took a hit in the final set when the team only mustered a .179 hitting percentage in the 25-16 loss.
Junior outside hitter Ashley Wittman said the loss wasn’t because of the Cornhuskers’ blocking.
“I wouldn’t say they necessarily figured us out. I think we got caught sometimes hitting into the seam, just low into their block,” Wittman said. “I think a lot of it was on us, too, just not hitting high off the hands and making smart plays.”
Dixon led the team with 16 kills and a .682 hitting percentage. She said her team has to learn how to “use what they’re giving you and just kind of go with it.”
In Iowa City, Iowa, the unranked Hawkeyes kept the first set close against the Gophers after defeating Indiana and ranked Purdue last weekend.
While Iowa ultimately lost 26-24, the team powered back to take the second set 25-18.
“They’re really good at defense, just picking up a lot of little things,” Wittman said. “So I think going into that we knew it was going to be rough.”
The first two sets were tight, but Minnesota managed to shut Iowa down in the last two, winning 25-15 and 25-17.
“I think the first two sets they really played hard, and we … didn’t play our game as well,” Wittman said. “But then the second two sets, we really got things flowing, and we just took it away.”
McCutcheon said he thought his team simply played better in the final sets.
“[We] just approached the game from a much more proactive viewpoint,” McCutcheon said.
Wittman, a captain, tallied a double-double against the Hawkeyes with team-highs in kills (16) and digs (17). But Wittman said it was “just a normal match.”
Senior outside hitter Katherine Harms also had a solid offensive and defensive match with 15 kills and 11 digs.
The Gophers will host a border battle Wednesday against Wisconsin at the Sports Pavilion.