Minnesota volleyball has been like a runaway train over the last 46 days – virtually impossible to stop. That trend continued Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, when the Golden Gophers (22-3, 14-1 B1G), who may as well have been Platinum Gophers, topped Northwestern (13-13, 5-10 B1G) in four sets, 3-1, for their 13th straight win.
Despite winning the first point of the first set, the Wildcats found themselves trailing for much of the opening frame. Staring at an 11-8 deficit, the ‘Cats rattled off an 8-3 run to grab a 16-14 lead, taking advantage of a Minnesota team that started very sluggishly. But after a timeout, the visitors seemed to wake up. The Gophers went on a 5-2 run to lead 19-18, and then later pushed across three straight to lead 22-19. The final point was a long one, as neither team was ready to roll over, until Kayla Morin put too much on a shot, handing set one to Minnesota 25-23.
Maddie Slater started set two with a pair of kills to give Northwestern a 2-1 lead, but they were never ahead again. With the set tied at five, the Gophers notched four straight points, prompting interim head coach (filling in for an ill Keylor Chan for the second consecutive match) Kirstine Jensen to call a timeout. Northwestern fought back, bringing the deficit to as close as 19-17, but Minnesota scored six of the final eight points, including the last three, to win the set 25-19.
Before last week’s losses to Illinois, Northwestern had been undefeated in matches that lasted longer than three sets. Facing an uphill battle against one of the best teams in the nation, the Wildcats came out firing in set three, constructing an early 7-5 lead. Sensing the danger, Minnesota went on a 5-1 run to lead 10-8. After Northwestern pushed across a 5-1 run of their own to lead 13-11, the two teams traded 4-1 runs, which saw Northwestern emerge with a 19-17 lead. The Gophers survived two set points, but finally Gabrielle Hazen fired one home to hand the home team a 25-22 win, just the ninth set won against the Gophers in their last 13 matches.
In a season that has been characterized by far too many untimely errors, the Wildcats epitomized their season struggles in set four. Minnesota jumped out to an early 5-1 lead, but four of those points came from Northwestern errors. But then the Wildcats awoke, notching nine of the next 12 points to seize a 10-8 lead. Undeterred, the Gophers countered with a massive 12-5 run to grab a 20-15 lead. The Wildcats stuck around, but two kills from Minnesota's Daly Santana and two errors from Northwestern handed Minnesota set point, and the visitors capitalized on a big swing from Hannah Tapp to take set four 25-19 and the match three sets to one.
On the positive side for Northwestern, Rafae Strobos set new career highs in kills and attempts and Taylor Tashima led the match with 53 assists, her third highest total this year, but it was Kayla Morin who was once again the best overall player on the floor. The junior buttressed her match-leading 16 kills with 13 digs and a service ace, once again displaying her versatility and once again drawing some high praise from her coach.
“Kayla really stepped it up today, just taking multiple swings, back to back, and getting kills for us,” Jensen said. Jensen also sung the praises of her middle blockers, Slater and Hazen, calling their play “outstanding.”
But those stars realize that things can get a lot better in Evanston. Despite hitting over .200, which they have done in every win this season, the Wildcats still didn’t get the win. Clearly, something needs to change.
“What needs to change is our defense,” Morin said. “Our coach put it well, she said we’re doing the big things right, we’re hitting well, we’re serving well, but we’re not picking up the little tips, botching small plays.”
“I think we had a lot of defensive errors,” Slater said, echoing Morin. “They had a lot of tricky shots that we just didn’t pick up. We didn’t adjust as fast as they did to us.”
For Northwestern, their pedestrian season continues. The loss drops them to 13-13 on the season, and those lucky numbers may only get worse as the nation’s toughest schedule wears on: three of Northwestern’s final five games are teams that are either in the top 25 or not far removed: Michigan State, Purdue, and Penn State, in ascending order of rank. Even two likely wins over Iowa and Maryland would not save the Wildcats’ season; they need to win at least one of those other three games to have a winning record and have any hope of making the NCAA Tournament in a few weeks’ time.
The 'Cats will be back in action on Sunday at home against Purdue.