MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers volleyball team won’t hang another banner in the rafters of Maturi Pavilion, much less inject a homespun flavor into the Final Four at Target Center next week.
Second-seeded Minnesota dropped a marathon second set and couldn’t recover in a 3-1 loss Friday, Dec. 7, to No. 15 Oregon in an NCAA regional semifinal in front of a partisan sellout crowd of 5,187 on the U campus.
The Sweet Sixteen defeat dashed the Gophers’ hope of advancing to play in the Final Four only three miles from Dinkytown, while banners have been hung only for Elite Eight finishes or better. The Ducks have to go through No. 7 Nebraska, the defending national champions, for that Final Four spot at 5 p.m. Saturday at Maturi Pavilion.
“This group worked incredibly hard and deserved a chance to compete at the end of this thing, but that is not going to be our lot in life, so we got to deal with what is,” said Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon, whose team lost for the first time in 17 home matches this season. “... It’s disappointing, but we understand it’s an occupational hazard. When you compete, sometimes this happens.”
Minnesota produced a status quo first-set win, 25-21, followed by extraordinary 41-39 loss in the second. The high-scoring frame challenged the NCAA record under the current scoring format, which was set by Santa Clara and St. Mary’s, 46-44, in November 2017.
Friday’s second set was peak back-and-forth. Minnesota and Oregon battled through 11 lead changes and 26 ties. The Gophers felt like they had won the set with a pancake dig from Samantha Seliger-Swenson, but their challenge of the official’s call was denied.
“Sam was pretty confident that she pancaked that ball, and that we got it,” McCutcheon said. “So we thought we’d won it and a little bit of a bait and switch there.”
The taxing second set proved to be the match’s turning point. The Gophers never hung around in the third set, quickly falling down 10-2 in a 25-14 loss. Minnesota struggled to hit through the Ducks’ block, managing a .111 hitting percentage in the third set after they walloped the Ducks with .465 in the first set.
“They figured out our tendency, and they stuck with it,” said Minnesota junior Taylor Morgan. “We weren’t doing anything special or anything, we were just hitting into the block.”
Needing to win two straight sets, the Gophers mounted a better rally in the fourth but fell 26-24. The Ducks (23-11) celebrated on the court with dozens of fans, while thousands of Gopher fans exited.
“We got heartbroken a little bit and it took us awhile to recover, I think that was clear,” McCutcheon said of the second set.
The Gophers lost four matches this season — two at the hands of the Ducks. Oregon also beat Minnesota 3-1 in the season’s sixth match on Sept. 7.
“They’re a scrappy team,” McCutcheon said. “They play with a lot of emotion, and they dug a lot of good balls and did a good job on defense slowing us down.”
The Gophers, who finished 27-3 this season, have senior Seliger-Swenson as their only departure. “I think their setter is just really one of a kind,” said Ducks coach Matt Ulmer.
After consecutive Final Four appearances in 2015-16, Minnesota’s 2017 season also ended in the Sweet Sixteen, a three-set defeat to Southern California, so there will be at least a two-year gap in draperies along the Pav’s west roofline.
“I still think it’s a phenomenal season for us,” McCutcheon said, “even though it’s not the end that all of us wanted.”