Rocky Topped in Knoxville

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Minnesota’s volleyball team was well on its way to a fourth-straight Sweet 16.

But then it all fell apart in a flash.

The 17th-ranked Gophers lost Saturday to Tennessee in five games in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Knoxville, Tenn., 19-30, 30-24, 30-20, 27-30, 11-15. The loss was overshadowed by a strong performance the night before against Winthrop, 30-13, 30-13, 30-24.

The collapse against Tennessee came when the Volunteers called their second timeout in the fourth game with the score in Minnesota’s favor, 22-17.

The Volunteers came out of the time out and finished off a 13-5 run to win the game and finish off the Gophers in the fifth game.

“It appears as if we were going to open the doors,” coach Mike Hebert said about the feelings before the Tennessee run. “They just kicked it down.”

Hebert said Minnesota committed many untimely errors in the match.

Many of the Gophers’ offensive runs ended with serving errors. Those errors made it hard for Minnesota to win a side-out battle with the Volunteers, and difficult to win the match in a high-stress tournament environment.

“I thought the serving errors were the difference in the match,” Hebert said. “Our decision to serve aggressively was a good decision. We just committed too many service errors.”

Minnesota committed 17 service errors in the match while Tennessee only committed five. That’s a 12-point spread the Gophers could have used in a tight match, and possibly the difference between going to another Sweet 16.

“It’s a low note,” senior libero Paula Gentil said. “Especially when I knew we had the talent and we knew we could do better.”

Gentil’s match against the Volunteers may have been bittersweet. She broke the all-time NCAA digs record, but finished her career with mixed emotions.

“It’s just sad that I’m leaving that way,” Gentil said. “But I hope that they will learn from this, and it will only get better.”

Part of that success most likely will rest on team captain and junior middle blocker Meredith Nelson.

Nelson was part of the early success against Tennessee in the first three games — she had more than 20 kills while committing no errors before the fourth game.

However, the Volunteers made adjustments to Nelson and shut down the Gophers unit.

“Tennessee started to send more blockers my direction,” Nelson said.

Hebert said: “So it was just getting harder and harder for her to get kills because of their block. We had to send other people that were open, and we didn’t get enough production out of those other people to win the match.”

Sophomore outside hitter Sarah Florian and junior outside hitter Meghan Cumpston were given more opportunities to knock down some balls in the fourth and fifth game, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the mistakes.

“We just didn’t perform very well at that very critical part of the match,” Hebert said.

The Gophers did perform well against Winthrop the night before.

Minnesota was on the other end of the serving game, as it served up 11 aces and committed only nine errors.

“Winthrop didn’t have much of a chance to get anything going offensively,” Hebert said. “But even had we not served that well, it was a match we would have won.”

Hebert said he attributes that to the defensive effort by Minnesota. Minnesota was able to out block the Eagles nine to three and limit their hitting percentage to .088.

“We thought that would be a good stepping-stone for our match against Tennessee,” Nelson said. “We were focused on Tennessee, but just didn’t have as much focus as they did.”


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