Gophers defeat Washington in thriller, advance to Sweet 16
The mood was “deathly quiet” in the locker room during the intermission of Saturday’s match at the Sports Pavilion, said Gophers interim head volleyball coach Laura Bush.
It didn’t stay that way for long.
Minnesota (20-11) rallied from two sets down to defeat Washington in the second round of the NCAA tournament to advance to its third consecutive Sweet 16.
Trailing 2-0, the Gophers made a setter change at the break, replacing freshman Kellie McNeil with junior Mia Tabberson. With Tabberson leading the way, Minnesota seized momentum that it never relinquished it in its 18-25, 20-25, 25-17, 25-21, 15-11 win.
Junior Katherine Harms had career-highs in kills (29) and digs (24), Tabberson had 45 assists and sophomore Ashley Wittman added 23 kills as Minnesota won its fifth consecutive match.
“You could see on everybody’s faces that we weren’t going to let each other down,” Harms said of the team’s comeback. “Everybody just decided, ‘we’re going to win this, we’re going to make sure we come back.’”
The Gophers hit .105 for the first two sets with McNeil setting. They hit .369 with Tabberson setting — including .486 in the third set and .407 in the fifth set.
“Tabberson came in and she changed the rhythm of the whole match,” Washington’s head coach Jim McLaughlin said.
Known for setting Minnesota’s middle blockers, Tabberson followed a different game plan out of the intermission, setting the team’s outside hitters to counter Washington’s unusual blocking scheme.
“Our middles have put up some really great numbers this whole season, so we knew coming in [Washington] would have to defend them,” Tabberson said. “Our middles drove as hard as they could every single time and it held the block. It opened up Ashley and Hailey [Cowles] and Katherine, and they scored all night long.”
McNeil set the outsides too, but missed the target with many of her sets and struggled to get any hitter other than Harms going.
It was McNeil’s first start since a 3-1 loss to Nebraska on Nov. 16. It was also her first NCAA tournament match, as Bush had elected to start Tabberson in Friday’s first-round sweep of North Dakota State.
Tabberson had led the Gophers to win 12 consecutive sets heading into Saturday’s match.
Yet Bush elected to start McNeil — a decision she said didn’t come easily.
“We thought we’d put the more athletic setter in, the one we thought could slow down [Washington’s] outsides,” Bush said. “But it didn’t matter — they were in system in those first two sets and we weren’t driving our serve. It didn’t matter who was going to be out there as far as the setter who could block the best.”
In her previous starts, McNeil had given the Gophers a strong blocking presence while using her athleticism to turn poor passes into scoring opportunities for the team’s outside hitters.
Not this time.
With McNeil setting the first two sets, Wittman — the team’s primary left-side hitter — had five kills and six attack errors. With Tabberson at the helm, she found her stride, totaling 18 kills with just four errors.
Cowles — the team’s second left-side hitter — hit negative-.182 with McNeil setting and .474 with Tabberson setting. She had a kill on each of Minnesota’s set points in the last three sets.
“Looking at it now, Mia really competed well,” Bush said. “I knew she would. I didn’t know how she was going to handle mentally being out for the first two sets.
“She was, in my mind, a really big hero for us in this match.”
Wittman had six kills in a fifth set in which Minnesota scored 14 of its 15 points on kills.
“I felt like I had it when the fifth set started,” Wittman said. “Our team was fired up. We were ready to go. We don’t come back from two sets down [and] lose that.”
Wittman struggled to serve and pass early in the match; as a result, Bush replaced her in the back row with defensive specialist Steffi Sooter.
Sooter solidified the Gophers’ serve-receive line, and also helped Wittman become more of a force on offense.
“She helped me get through the front row,” Wittman said. “She took a little bit of the pressure off me, which was awesome.”
Wittman had played in the front and back row all season, but on Saturday it was Harms who took on that role after the intermission.
Harms had 20 digs in the last three sets while racking up numerous kills out of the back row. Minnesota out-dug Washington 57-36 after the intermission and 95-74 overall.
The Gophers will host fourth-seeded Iowa State on Dec. 9 at the Sports Pavilion. The winner advances to the Elite Eight, which Minnesota will also host, regardless of whether the Gophers advance.