MINNEAPOLIS — When Oregon's team bus arrived back at the Ducks' hotel following their morning serve-and-pass session, UO coach Matt Ulmer bid his team adieu.
Ulmer and his staff needed to get over to Maturi Pavilion to scout Friday's early regional semifinal match between Kentucky and Nebraska. As he stood in the aisle of Oregon's team bus, Ulmer addressed the Ducks for the final time before they arrived at the gym a couple hours later for their own NCAA regional matchup, with host team and No. 2-ranked Minnesota.
"Go after it," Ulmer said. "Enjoy it. These are great moments. Make great memories."
Little did the Ducks know at that point, they were about to make one of the greatest memories in any of their young lives. The No. 15 Oregon volleyball team lost the opening set to the Gophers, then won an epic second set before finishing off Minnesota in four sets for the second time this season, 21-25, 41-39, 25-14, 26-24 before 5,187 decidedly partisan fans who saw the Gophers lose at home for the first time all season.
Most of them left Maturi Pavilion disappointed. But not the Ducks. This was jubilation, relief and affirmation all in equal parts, as Oregon moved on to an NCAA regional final for just the second time in school history, and the first since reaching the national final in 2012.
"It was two really good volleyball teams, playing high level volleyball," Ulmer said. "And it was just, who's going to make plays at the end?"
The answer: Oregon junior Ronika Stone, who for the second straight outing sealed match point for the Ducks, before collapsing in a heap on the floor.
Jubilation. Relief. Affirmation.
"We decided that, no matter what, we were going to be fearless in everything we did," said senior setter August Raskie, who recorded her second triple-double of the season with 10 kills, 60 assists and 11 digs.
"This is stuff coach has been begging us to do the entire season. It just so happened to click tonight."
Three months to the day after the Ducks beat then-No. 1 Minnesota at a tournament hosted by Stanford, the Golden Gophers won Friday's first set, 25-21. At that point, the aggregate score between the two teams across five sets this season was 121 points for the Ducks, and 121 points for the Golden Gophers.
And if the slim margin between the two teams wasn't obvious then, it became so in Friday's unforgettable second set.
Nine times, Oregon fended off set point, the last time at 39-38. At one point it appeared Minnesota had won 39-37, but Ulmer challenged a call — the first four challenges of the night had gone the Gophers' way — and the play was overturned. The Ducks were still alive.
Finally, on the Ducks' eighth chance to even the match at a set apiece, Brooke Van Sickle landed a kill off the Minnesota block, her second straight kill — on a night she finished with just four. The longest NCAA tournament match since rally scoring was introduced in 2008 was over. Momentum swung to the Ducks, and remained at their side most of the final two sets.
"This is really important," Ulmer said. "It's important to get into these matches against the best teams in the country — Minnesota is maybe the best team in the country — and just fight and be fearless, and go after it."
Conventional wisdom said the winner of that marathon second set would have a huge emotional edge. Senior middle blocker Lauren Page made sure that held up.
To open the third set, Page contributed to three straight blocks that resulted in UO points. The Ducks jumped out to a 6-0 lead, then 10-2, then 17-7, and finally won 25-14 — fittingly, on a kill by Page, whose early blocks set the tone for the only one-sided set played this season between the Ducks and Gophers.
"That was awesome," said UO senior Lindsey Vander Weide, who had 17 kills and 18 digs, and had a phenomenal night in serve receive with 58 successful receptions and just one error.
"That's just how Lauren is — she gets over early, and she just shuts down hitters. That definitely made them uncomfortable. They knew they were going to have to change their swings, and they did."
Its season in the balance, Minnesota led the fourth set 12-8, and rallied back from a 16-14 deficit to lead 22-19. But yet another block by Page, in tandem with Willow Johnson — on a night the lefty had 15 kills — tied the set 23-23.
A service error set up match point for Oregon at 25-24, and Stone finished it off with her career-high 20th kill — one more than she had exactly three months earlier in another upset of Minnesota.
"Ronika's just the type of player that, she takes over games," Raskie said. "It's an amazing opportunity to be her setter."
As Stone collapsed to the floor after the final point, she'd fulfilled Ulmer's exhortation from earlier in the day. The Ducks had made the memory of a lifetime.
"An unforgettable one, honestly," Raskie said. "I'm really proud to be a part of this program right now, and I'm really proud to see where this program is going — and to be part of the journey as we lay foundation for what we are to become down the road."
Afterward, they faced a quick turnaround, before taking on Nebraska on Saturday (3 p.m. PT, ESPNU) for a spot in the national semifinals. Asked about the recovery process following the epic upset of Minnesota, Ulmer first joked that, "I'm sure it'll be easy to come down from this," before offering frank honesty.
"It's going to be a train wreck," Ulmer said. "But it's what it is. It's a very emotional match.
"We'll go get food, we'll try to get to sleep before midnight — which won't happen, but we'll try — and then we'll play a really good Nebraska team that I thought looked phenomenal earlier today. But that's what you do if you get this far. It's not going to be easy, and you only get to play the best teams, so we're happy we're in it."