'Don't lose the hope': After comeback win over Creighton, Gophers face Florida in Sweet 16

CC McGraw and the Gophers volleyball team heads to Austin, Texas to face Florida in the NCAA Sweet 16 on Friday. ((credit: University of Minnesota))

Trailing 24-22 in the fourth set against Creighton in the NCAA Tournament Saturday night, the season was on the line for the University of Minnesota volleyball team.

It was match point for the Bluejays, looking to upset the No. 7-seeded Gophers and head to the Sweet 16. Coach Hugh McCutcheon called a timeout, and his team regrouped. It might have saved the season. The Gophers scored the next three points with a run from CC McGraw to win the set 26-24, forcing a winner-take-all fifth set.

Minnesota won the final set 15-10, and the fans at Maturi Pavilion could breathe again. For fifth year senior and middle blocker Taylor Morgan, the thought of the season being over never entered her mind. She was focused on the next point, as has been the team’s mentality most of the season.

“At that point you really don’t want to think about it, but it’s really hard not to. You just tell them ‘just do your job. Do what you have to do, don’t lose the hope.’ Those are the times where doubt can creep in and we’re like no, we can’t think about it. We can’t think about the season could be over, no,” Morgan said. “We’re just going to take it point by point. What is one thing that I can do to help us win this next point, not this next game? I feel like that kind of calmed us down a little bit and it did help that CC went on a little run with the serves. After that it was just like OK, it’s not the end of the world.”

Alexis Hart and Adanna Rollins led the Gophers in the match with 15 kills apiece. Hart added four digs and three blocks. Rollins had 11 digs and one ace. Stephanie Samedy filled the stat sheet with 19 digs, seven kills, five blocks and one ace.

The Gophers (25-5) have been put in tough situations most of the season, so they weren’t phased by facing a match point against the Bluejays. They just had to face the reality that giving up the next point would be season-ending. McCutcheon said the team’s calling card this season has been one of resolve, one of grit. In this instance, not allowing the next point kept their season alive.

“This team has gone through a lot of moments of potential adversity that could’ve defined the season in the wrong kind of way and yet they’ve found ways to be successful in spite of those moments. Another way that was exemplified on Saturday,” McCutcheon said. “We understand that doesn’t get us anything moving forward, but what we do know is that if we get into trouble, we’ve gotten out of trouble before and it’s nice to know that versus hope that.”

Minnesota will now take that grit and resolve to the NCAA Sweet 16, having won five straight matches. The Gophers will face No. 10-seeded Florida on Friday in Texas for a trip to the Elite 8. On the other side of the bracket, the No. 2 seed and host Texas takes on Louisville. The winners meet Saturday for a trip to the NCAA Final 4 in Pittsburgh.

The Gators are a familiar opponent for the Gophers. More than three months ago, Minnesota knocked off Florida in its fourth match of the season, 25-20, 25-17 and 25-22. The Gators enter Friday’s match 27-4 after beating Central Florida in five sets, and finished 16-2 in the SEC.

“We’re a little different than we were three or four months ago, I’m sure they are too so we’re not putting much stock into what happened in September,” McCutcheon said.