On Thursday night, Dec. 19, for the first time in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the No. 7-seeded Minnesota Gophers volleyball team will be considered an underdog heading into their Final Four semifinal match against defending national champion Stanford, this year’s No. 3 seed.
Yet, for Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon, it’s nothing new.
“I feel like we’ve been an underdog most of the season,” he said. “We’ve had injuries, we’ve had all kinds of stuff we’ve been trying to manage. This has been a remarkable group, and they’ve dealt with all of that really well.”
Now just one more obstacle remains between the Gophers and their first national championship match since 2004 — against Stanford, who edged them out in that final 15 years ago and also defeated the Gophers in Minnesota’s most recent Final Four appearance, in 2016.
The good news is, Minnesota’s last memory of Stanford is a positive one: The Gophers (27-5) took down the then-No. 1-ranked Cardinal (28-4) in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge in September, winning in four sets (27-25, 27-25, 23-25, 25-20).
The teams meet again in a semifinal match at 8:30 p.m. Thursday in Pittsburgh. No. 4 Wisconsin (26-6) plays No. 1 Baylor (29-1) at 6 p.m. Thursday in the other semifinals. The winners square off in the final at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“I’m sure both teams have probably evolved, but at some point, there has to be a fundamental belief that you can win the match and if you’ve never beaten a team, it’s probably hard to believe that,” McCutcheon said. “But if you have, well then, maybe you think it’s possible.”
Nobody will be counting the Gophers out this time around. It would be foolish to think anything else as they’ve made it through an injury-riddled regular season full of lineup adjustments and top-tier competition, not to mention a pair of come-from-behind five-set victories against Creighton and Florida in the NCAA Tournament.
However, it will be no cake walk either. Standing on the other side is two-time AVCA and ESPNW Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer. The Cardinal’s senior outside hitter has averaged just over five kills per set this season and was named Co-Most Outstanding Player in 2018 NCAA Tournament with her teammate Morgan Hentz, a libero who also returned to Stanford this year.
“She’s really good. She’s got to be one of the all-time great collegiate volleyball players, no question,” McCutcheon said of Plummer. “We get that. We respect that she’s good. We’ll do our best to defend it, but yeah, she’s a handful.”
In the Gophers, first match against Plummer more than three months ago, she led Stanford with 20 kills. But she also committed nine errors and was held to a .200 hit percentage, her second-lowest percentage all season.
It wasn’t just Plummer who struggled to be efficient. The Stanford team’s hitting percentage was a lowly .185, one of just three times that number fell below .200 this season. For the 2019 season, Stanford ranks No. 4 in the country in hit percentage (.299).
“I think our blockers did an especially good job of setting up, making my life a lot easier in the backcourt,” said Gophers libero CC McGraw, who led the team with 20 digs against Stanford. “They have a lot of offensive attackers who are really strong, but I think as long as we just do that again, play consistent, play simple, I think it’ll be a good match.”
Consistency is something Minnesota seems to have found in the past few matches, especially on offense. After struggling against Creighton in the second round, Minnesota had 64 kills in the third round against Florida, its most since early October, and then cruised past Louisville in three sets in the Elite Eight.
“I think we got on each other in the Florida game like ‘hey, we just need to go back and do our job,’ and I think once we settled and started doing our jobs, everything just flowed together, and I think that’s something we did really well against Louisville, and it got us what we wanted,” sophomore outside hitter Adanna Rollins said.
What they want now is a chance to play for Minnesota’s first national championship. But players haven’t allowed their minds to think about that just yet.
“I think it’ll hit us when we get there,” McGraw said. “I think once we get there and start practicing, it’ll be real, but it’s exciting.”