After falling in the Sweet Sixteen the previous two seasons, the Gophers' volleyball team avoided the rule of threes and advanced to the Elite Eight with a victory over No. 10 Florida.
For the second straight match, the Gophers won in five sets: 23-25, 25-14, 16-25, 25-15 and 15-11. A tightly contested first set opened up as Florida took a 10-7 lead, but its lead was quickly eliminated by Minnesota with a 3-0 run, tying the set with a kill off the hand of outside hitter Alexis Hart. Middle blocker Taylor Morgan tied the set again at 12, but the pendulum swung back in Florida's favor as they answered with a 6-1 run to take an 18-13 lead. That separation would be enough for Florida to hold onto the set, despite the Gophers coming within one once the Gators reached set point.
Minnesota answered with a dominant second set performance. They opened the set 5-0 and forced Florida to call an early timeout. Florida initially crept back, answering with a 4-0 run that left them trailing 9-8. However, the Gophers answered with another 5-0 run and dominated the remainder of the set. Middle blocker Regan Pittman led the Gophers with five kills in the second as Minnesota took the set by a double-digit margin.
Florida answered with a similar fervor in the third. Tied at 12, the Gators went on a 5-0 run and controlled the momentum for the remainder of the set. Morgan added a late kill for Minnesota, but it wasn't enough. Florida took the second, and despite a dominant second set performance from Minnesota, their fate relied on the outcome of the fourth.
"When you're playing at this level, at this stage of the tournament, you got two good teams, there's naturally going to be some ebb and flow," said head coach Hugh McCutcheon.
The Gophers found themselves trailing 2-1 for the second straight match. They also found themselves forcing a fifth set for the second straight match. Hart landed back-to-back kills as the Gophers opened the set 11-7. The Gophers play at the net fueled yet another run, Morgan stuffed a Florida attempt alongside outside hitter Adanna Rollins, then blocked another with opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy. Defensive specialist Rachel Kilkelly capped a 4-0 Minnesota run with an ace to take a 16-8 lead. From there, it was all Minnesota. Pittman added three more kills, including the last of the set, and the Gophers national championship hopes stayed alive.
The teams split the first six points of the set, before Minnesota rattled off six straight to distance themselves from the Gators.
"I thought [Samedy] served a really great string in the fifth. That helped to create some distance there and we were able to just side out and hold on," McCutcheon said.
Rollins added one of her four kills in the fifth as the Gophers went up 9-5, and a flip over the net from setter Kylie Miller brought the lead to 11-6. Rollins, Hart, Pittman and Morgan all finished with double-digit kills, Hart leading the way with 16.
"Certainly good to get so many great contributions offensively from so many people," McCutcheon said. "I think the serving and the defensive side of things really helped us as well."
Defensively, Morgan and Pittman added seven and six blocks respectively. Samedy also finished with six blocks, and closed out the fifth with her seventh kill of the match.
With the win, the Gophers advance to the Elite Eight to take on Louisville. Louisville upset No. 2 Texas in a five set battle just before Minnesota followed suit with a five set win against Florida. The Gophers will see Louisville on Saturday at 9 p.m.