U volleyball continues to roll in Big Ten, dominating No. 7 Illini
Hugh McCutcheon knew that talking wouldnt matter. The Gophers wouldnt understand what it truly meant to play a pair of top-25 opponents on the road until they actually did it and their coach was eager to see how they were going to handle Oregon and Stanford in early September.
The Gophers lost to both, by identical scores of 3-1 in the Pac 12/Big Ten Challenge in California. But McCutcheon was less concerned with the result than with what his team learned from the weekend which turned out to be plenty. Those two defeats launched the Gophers on a win streak that now stands at eight matches, after Fridays 3-0 dismantling of No. 7 Illinois at Maturi Pavilion.
As they have throughout the season, the Gophers spread the scoring around among a wealth of powerful hitters in a 25-22, 25-19, 25-20 victory. Alexis Hart led the way with 15 kills, including 13 in the second and third sets. Stephanie Samedy added 10, and Regan Pittman had nine.
Samantha Seliger-Swenson finished with 41 assists for the Gophers, who outhit Illinois .270-.194.
The 7-0 start to Big Ten play is the longest season-opening league streak for the Gophers since 1999, when they also started 7-0. The victory moved their record at Maturi Pavilion to 8-0 this season.
McCutcheon likes to schedule tough opponents early in the season to get a read on his team. The quicker he knows its tendencies and the areas that need work, he figures, the quicker the team can try to fix them.
He wasnt happy with what he saw against Oregon. The Gophers didnt play with any intensity early in the match, dropping the first two sets before they got on track. That earned them a lecture from their coach, who impressed upon them that they cannot afford any lapses.
At the outset (of the Oregon match), there was an issue of, Hey, these are the things we say we want to do, but this is what were actually doing, McCutcheon said. There was a credibility gap there that we either needed to resolve, or we needed to change the goals of the team for this year.
I think there was definitely a bit of an awakening. Generally, experience is the teacher. We can talk about what it is to play these tough matches, and how small the margins are between winning and losing. But its not until you experience some of the heartbreak that goes with it that maybe you pay a little more attention.
The Gophers have been exceptionally sharp since then. They swept five of their first six Big Ten matches including two against top-five teams and dropped only one set, beating No. 3 Nebraska 3-1 on the road last weekend.
Friday, they came out roaring with the balanced attack that has become their trademark. They prevailed in a tight first set with six kills by Pittman, plus three aces and 14 assists from Seliger-Swenson.
While the Gophers appeared unflappable, Illinois ended the first set with two errors and added more in the second set. The Illini made four service errors in the set but kept it close until late, when the Gophers broke a 15-15 tie with an 8-1 surge. Hart had seven kills in the set, including five during the run that sealed the set.
The third set started much the same way. The Gophers trailed 11-9 before embarking on an 8-1 tear, which gave them a 17-12 lead.