The Gophers' quest to finish the Big Ten volleyball season undefeated ended in disappointment last week at Penn State, but it might have been a blessing in disguise.
For the first time in 10 weeks, Minnesota was reminded what it felt like to lose a match.
After winning 19 in a row, including their first 18 in league play, the Gophers lost to the Nittany Lions in five sets at Rec Hall in State College, Pa.
"We put our heart and soul out there but still didn't win," said redshirt junior middle blocker Taylor Morgan. "It was hard seeing the other girls on their team. ... I took it as a learning opportunity and am going to use this as ammo for the next couple of weeks."
It was an important game for the Nittany Lions, too. Penn State's 2009 team is still the last team to go undefeated in conference play.
So, the second-seeded Gophers (25-3) begin NCAA tournament play this weekend with a fresh memory of what it's like to lose. "We talked about the fact that it stung and it should," U coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "But hopefully that is further motivation to be a little bit cleaner and be a little bit more disciplined moving forward."
Because they've earned the right to host the first two regionals, the Gophers could win their first NCAA title without leaving Minneapolis because the Final Four is set for Dec. 13-15 at Target Center. Their first test comes against unseeded Bryant (22-12) in a first-round match at 7 p.m. Friday at their own Maturi Pavilion.
As @GopherVBall head coach @McCutcheonMN knows very well, the sport of volleyball has a special place in the Minneapolis community, and he expects it to be a full house in a few weeks when the 2018 Division I Volleyball Championship arrives!#NCAAVB pic.twitter.com/lPxBurSYtx— NCAA Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) November 27, 2018
Colorado (18-13) and South Carolina (19-9) will play in the early first-round match at 4:30 p.m. The winners will play in a second-round match at 7 p.m. Saturday at Maturi Pavilion.
Going into last weekend, the Gophers had already clinched the Big Ten championship, so what they were playing for at Penn State and Rutgers was "a little bit nebulous," head coach Hugh McCutcheon said, in terms of what it would mean for NCAA tournament seeding.
With a three-set win against the Scarlet Knights on Saturday, the Gophers finished 19-1 in the Big Ten and earned the No. 2 seed in the tournament on Sunday. But Friday's loss at Penn State still hurt.
"It matters a lot how you compete when there's nothing on the line, and I thought our kids really battled and Penn State played great," McCutcheon said.
If the Gophers win two matches this weekend, they will host a regional at Maturi Pavilion on Dec. 7-8 with the winner advancing to the Final Four.
It's time for @GopherVBall to go dancing! Be there to cheer on the #Gophers as they begin NCAA post-season play at the Pav. Get your tickets now, as they're expected to go quick!— Minnesota Gophers (@GopherSports) November 27, 2018
🎟️: https://t.co/MnvaS0cv3u pic.twitter.com/TzcbTP8AHM
Minnesota has been led by its offense, which ranks fifth in the nation in both hitting percentage (.299) and kills per set (14.9). They enjoy a lineup full of powerful hitters that can hurt other teams, but aren't selfish for the ball.
"I don't think any of us have that mindset because we are all going for this national championship," said freshman outside hitter Adanna Rollins.
The Gophers defense, however, hasn't been as strong. They are 51st in blocks per set (2.4) and 60th in digs (16.5).
"I think we made some really positive changes (defensively) over the weekend in terms of where we wanted to be technically," McCutcheon said. "I thought both back row and front row we were a little bit better. We hope to continue to build on that through this week, and if we are still playing next and beyond."
IF YOU GO
* What: NCAA women's volleyball regional
* When: Friday
* Where: Maturi Pavilion, University of Minnesota
* Who: No. 2 seed Gophers (25-3) vs. Bryant (22-12), 7 p.m.; South Carolina (19-9) vs. Colorado (18-13), 4:30 p.m.
* At stake: Winners advance to second-round match Saturday at 7 p.m.
This article is written by Andy Greder from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.