MINNEAPOLIS -- For much of last Saturday’s NCAA tournament second-round match against Creighton, it looked as if the Minnesota Golden Gophers volleyball season was over.
Down two match points in the fourth set against the unseeded Bluejays, visions of a disappointing, early end to an otherwise remarkable season crept into the minds of the Maturi Pavilion faithful, and even the players.
“At that point you don’t really want to think about it, but it’s really hard not to. But you just tell (the team), ‘Do your job, do what you have to do, don’t lose hope,’ ” senior middle blocker Taylor Morgan said. “Those are the times when doubt can creep in.”
Trailing 24-22 in that fourth set, the Gophers, the 64-team tournament’s No. 7 seed. won the next four points to win the set and force a decisive fifth, then won seven of the final nine points to take the match and escape. Whether it was luck, skill or fate, the Gophers made it out of the second round for the fifth consecutive season, and now await a familiar opponent in the Sweet Sixteen: the Florida Gators.
The Gophers (25-5) swept the Gators (27-4) in three sets — 25-20, 25-17, 25-22 — on Sept. 7 at home. Now, those same Gators, the No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament, stand in the way of an Elite Eight appearance. Despite the familiarity, Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said much has changed since the teams’ first meeting.
“We know a little bit of what they’re going to do, but I think we were a little different than we were three or four months ago, and I’m sure they are too,” he said. “So, we’re not putting too much stock into what happened in September.”
Neither team had a particularly strong offensive day in their first meeting, and Minnesota almost certainly will rely on a stellar defensive unit that flexed its muscle for most of the first two rounds. The team had 25 blocks in its first two victories, and currently ranks No. 8 in the country in blocks per set (2.85). However, that may not be enough against the Gators. The Gophers will need to get increased production from an offensive unit that struggled at times against Creighton, finishing with a .141 hit percentage while committing 23 attack errors.
“I still like us on the defensive end against most teams, but we’ve got to produce on the offensive end as well,” McCutcheon said.
In order to boost their offense, the Gophers may go back to the 6-2 lineup that got them out of a rut against Creighton and created momentum for their comeback. The lineup shift allows all six players on the court to be hitters, while featuring two players who are able to set. The hope is that it creates a more offensive lineup as all six players are a threat on offense, while also increasing the height to better block opponent’s attacks.
“If circumstance dictates that we need to roll it out, then we’re certainly not afraid too,” McCutcheon said. “Again, (it’s) nice to have that string to our bow should we need it moving forward.”
Friday’s match, hosted by the University of Texas in Austin, will be the first time the Gophers have played an NCAA tournament game away from Maturi Pavilion since 2017. If the Gophers win, they will await the winner of No. 2 Texas (23-3) and unseeded Louisville (21-9). If Texas advances, it also would be the second time the Gophers played against them this season. The Longhorns beat Minnesota 3-0 on Sept. 4 in Austin and would once again play them in front of a raucous home crowd Saturday.
“We’ll play whenever, wherever, whoever, so I feel like (where we play) doesn’t really dictate, but I like it when they’re cheering against us, low-key,” Morgan said. “If you’re going to cheer against us, OK, we’re still going to give you a good volleyball game, we’ll give you a good show.”