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Rachel Blount | Star Tribune | December 12, 2016

Durability pushes Minnesota into semifinals

  Minnesota has faced some challenge, but its ability to adapt has kept it afloat.

Over the past several weeks, the Gophers have played eight teams ranked in the Top 25. They have faced some opponents that tried to overpower them and others that relied on finesse. And they've seen their share of trouble, from an early two-set hole against Nebraska to a 6-0 deficit at the beginning of Saturday's NCAA regional final against UCLA.

The single common denominator: In every instance, the top-ranked Gophers have found a way to prevail. That, more than any other quality, carried them into this week's Final Four in Columbus, Ohio.

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The Gophers (29-4) demonstrated their adaptability again Saturday at the Sports Pavilion, when they slowly shredded UCLA's game plan after a sluggish start. Their 25-23, 25-20, 25-22 sweep put them into Thursday's NCAA semifinal against No. 9 Stanford (25-7) at Nationwide Arena. After watching his team win 14 matches in a row while being tested in myriad ways, coach Hugh McCutcheon believes that resourcefulness has put it in good position to chase the program's first NCAA championship.

"The biggest thing to me is just their ability to adjust in-match to different things that are going on," McCutcheon said. "We've had people try to attack us a lot of different ways and try to defend us a lot of different ways. And yet, we're still able to kind of pick the lock and figure out how to win the next point.

"I think that's the rare quality. Whether that means we're as good as we can be in Columbus, who knows? I think the team is well prepared. I think we're in a good space. But time will tell."

In the tournament's first four rounds, the second-seeded Gophers lost only one set, ending their home season with a 17-0 record. They defeated No. 18 Missouri in the regional semifinal and No. 8 UCLA in the final. That sent them to the Final Four for the fifth time in program history.

Senior Sarah Wilhite, the Big Ten player of the year, was named the regional's most valuable player after tallying 31 kills in the two matches. She joined setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson (87 assists) and middle blocker Molly Lohman (15 kills, eight blocks) on the all-tournament team. The Gophers also got outstanding backcourt play from libero Dalianliz Rosado and powerful hitting from freshman Alexis Hart, particularly on Saturday.

The Bruins leapt to a fast start with a sound strategy. They won several early points by tipping balls softly over the net, taking a 6-0 lead, and they dug nearly every smash the Gophers' hitters fired at them.

Coach Michael Sealy said his players carried out their plan perfectly in those opening minutes. But when they began to drift away from their assignments, the Gophers exploited those cracks to claw their way in front.

"You could say [the Gophers] had a slow start," Sealy said. "But it was amazing execution [by UCLA]. It wasn't going to last the whole match. I think [the Gophers] did a great job of slowly coming back."

Wilhite said the Gophers countered UCLA's strategy by improving their communication, making defensive adjustments and keeping their wits. Midway through the first set, they began cutting into a seven-point deficit. They took their first lead at 21-20 and outlasted the Bruins to close out the set, then won the second set after scoring seven points in a row and getting nine kills from Wilhite.

Stanford reached the NCAA semifinal by upsetting No. 3 seed Wisconsin in five sets. The Cardinal trailed 2-0 before rallying for an 18-25, 24-26, 25-21, 25-21, 15-9 victory in Madison.

Senior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku was named the regional's MVP after recording 20 kills, anchoring her young team as Stanford reached the Final Four for the 20th time. The Gophers lost at Stanford 3-1 on Aug. 28 in their second match of the season.

This article is written by Rachel Blount from Star Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.


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