The Big Ten conference title has finally been claimed after almost two months of competition.
And the winner — Penn State, which is ranked second nationally — isn’t a surprise.
The real suspense lies in the race for second place, which is currently a tie between three other nationally ranked teams: Minnesota (No. 14), Nebraska (No. 9) and Ohio State (No. 15). All three teams have 13-5 records.
The Gophers put themselves back in contention for second place this weekend with a thrilling five-set victory over the Huskers on Friday at the Sports Pavilion. It was Minnesota’s first win against Nebraska since 1980.
“It’s awesome to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten,” senior outside hitter Katherine Harms said. “But for us it just comes down to [being] the best team that we can be going into the [NCAA] tournament.”
Minnesota needed five match points against the Huskers to close out the fifth set 21-19, but it also saved two match points.
“It was a great environment today on that court. We felt good, and we just went for it,” freshman outside hitter Daly Santana said. “It’s great that we had that energy because I think that helped us a lot to just keep going and not back down.”
The Gophers and Huskers traded blowouts in the first two sets, but the third and fourth sets were much closer. After losing the third set 25-22, the Gophers rallied from an early deficit in the fourth to win it 25-19.
“There was some ebb and flow in this match, as you would expect with two good teams,” head coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “We got them early, they got us next and then all of a sudden we’re going back and forth.”
McCutcheon said he was more impressed with how his team played and battled out of trouble than the win.
Santana led the way for the Gophers with a career-high 17 kills. She added an ace, 10 digs and four blocks. Junior middle blocker Tori Dixon had 16 kills, two aces and seven blocks.
Junior outside hitter Ashley Wittman had 14 kills, and Harms had 13 kills, 12 digs and three aces.
“I thought [Harms] had a great match, especially from the service line in that fourth game. She got a pivotal string that allowed us to get into the fifth,” McCutcheon said. “But also Daly [Santana took] the right approach from the service line, not backing down from that thing.”
McCutcheon said his team’s impressive play stemmed from the service line. He said he thought the Gophers also smoothed out their passing.
Minnesota’s passing improved slightly in the third set, when sophomore Morgan Bohl made her college debut at libero, replacing struggling freshman Lindsey Lawmaster.
“Morgan has worked very hard this season and is in a position now to contribute significantly to this team,” McCutcheon said. “Lindsey was a little bit streaky.”
Dixon said she thought Minnesota did a good job neutralizing some of Nebraska’s star players Friday. Huskers’ setter Lauren Cook caught the Gophers off guard often in the teams’ last meeting when she killed the ball early.
It was a different story this time around.
“I think we handled her really well,” Dixon said. “There were some times where she got us, definitely. But for the most part, she didn’t lead her team in kills and hitting percentage, so that’s a plus.”
The Gophers’ solid serving pushed Nebraska out of its system and limited Cook, Dixon said.
Minnesota continued the momentum Saturday with a sweep of unranked Iowa.
The Gophers won 25-13, 25-22 and 25-16, but McCutcheon said his team may have let up too early in the second set.
“We got a little reckless. We hit a few out. We weren’t taking care of the ball in serve-receive, and all of a sudden it got close,” McCutcheon said Saturday. “We played a nice match last night. It was a lot of energy and a lot of emotion, and it’s tempting for athletes to use that as a crutch for maybe not giving our best effort.”
Harms and Dixon led the Gophers in kills with 12 each, followed by Santana with eight. Harms also led the hitters in hitting percentage with .667 and tallied two aces.
Bohl started her first match this season as libero and earned a team-high eight digs against the Hawkeyes.
“It feels amazing to be on the court,” Bohl said. “I was kind of nervous the first time getting out there ... but I wanted to get out on the court and make a difference.
Bohl, who is listed as an outside hitter on the roster, said she has been working on both positions in practice.