Dec. 12, 2009

Sidebar: Home Cooking Spices Up Minnesota Effort

By Judd Spicer
Special to

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- Tabitha Love seems to be getting the hang of big-time NCAA volleyball.

After leading the 11th-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers (28-8) past Colorado State in Friday's second Minneapolis Regional semifinal with a career-high 22 kills, Love displayed equal heart on Saturday, leading Minnesota to the program's third Final Four appearance since 2003.

The freshman outside hitter led Minnesota with 21 kills as the host Gophers defeated third-seeded Florida State in four sets, winning 25-20, 25-7, 18-25, 25-17.  Love, who began her college career with three double-digit kill efforts in her first 20 games, has now sported six such stat lines in her last seven games.  Her 21st and final kill closed out the match and sent the Sports Pavilion into a frenzy.  She was later named Most Outstanding Player of the Minneapolis Region.
"She has been gradually improving all season long," Gopher coach Mike Hebert said. "It's not just getting the kills, it's the body language.  She's losing that tentativeness that she had early on in the season.  Now, if the ball is airborne, she gonnna take a swing at it.  

"Before, she was swinging at flies when they went by."

The Gophers will play the winner of the Omaha Regional (No.10 seed Nebraska (26-6) vs. No. 2 seed Texas (27-1) in the national semifinals, which begin Thursday, at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

The seven-point second set was the lowest single-game output of the season for the Seminoles (31-3), who came into the night as winners of their last 19 matches. Florida State reached the Elite Eight via Friday's regional semi win over Kentucky in five sets -- that match marked the program's Sweet 16 debut.  

In defeat, Florida State was led by 11 kills from the powerful right arm of senior outside hitter Mira Djuric and by 15 digs from junior libero Jenna Romanelli.  Setters Duygu Duzceler and Nikki Baker combined to distribute 36 assists for the Seminoles.  For the second straight night, ACC Player of the Year Brianna Haugen was kept in check, with eight kills coupled with a .350 hit percentage.  

Minnesota was a measured 17-7 in a tough Big Ten entering the month of November.  But as the leaves turned, so did the Gophers' fortunes.  Minnesota has now won 11 of their last 12 matches; the victory over the Seminoles improved their all-time NCAA record at the Sports Pavilion to 12-1.  The last time the regionals were held in Minneapolis was 2004, Minnesota advanced to their second-straight Final Four after surviving two classic matches with Georgia Tech and Ohio State.  In that '04 season, the Gophers concluded their campaign as national runner-up after losing to Stanford.

"My tie lasted about three seconds tonight before I had to loosen it," Hebert said.  "I knew it was going to be a very warm and entertaining evening.  We continued to play, as we have for the last month, what I call `very clean' volleyball -- a minimum of errors, particularly in the final points of each set.  We seem to have that instinct to play well when it really counts."  

Complimenting Love's line were the ever-ebullient efforts of junior middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer, who entered the NCAA's ranking in the top-10 in both blocks (1.49) and hit percentage (.409).  On Saturday, Gibbemeyer sported 15 kills and six digs and three block assists.  Palm Harbor, Fla.-native Christine Tan added a team-high 24 digs for Minnesota while setter Taylor Carico led with 44 assists.