MINNEAPOLIS — Creighton volleyball players left the court after a victorious first game excited but in control of their emotions.
Never mind the odds of beating No. 11 Minnesota on its home court at the Sports Pavilion. The Bluejays were determined to redeem a sweep suffered in 2010 in this NCAA second-round match against these same Gophers.
But despite a better start, No. 21 Creighton got much the same result Saturday. Minnesota shook off the Bluejays' upset bid in a 20-25, 25-17, 25-23, 25-17 victory. The Gophers advance to a Sweet 16 match Friday in West Lafayette, Ind.
“We're hurting right now,” Bluejays coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. “I don't think anyone in the country thought we would win, but we did. They beat us, but I thought we did a lot of great things.”
Creighton (29-4) established its defense from the start with five blocks in game one. The Bluejays were outblocked just once all season and entered Saturday's match with 3.05 blocks per set — fifth-best in the nation.
Megan Bober and Kelli Browning blocked Minnesota's Daly Santana to clinch the first game. Browning's five block assists Saturday give her 189 this season, setting a Missouri Valley Conference single-season record.
“It took us awhile to get into our rhythm, and in large part that was because they did a nice job serving the ball and defensively,” said Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon, who directed the U.S. men's volleyball team to Olympic gold in 2008 and the women's team to silver in 2012. “I thought their blocking defense was good.”
In the teams' previous NCAA tournament meeting, Minnesota swept the Bluejays 25-19, 30-28, 25-20 in 2010. Bober knew getting a different outcome Saturday would start with the proper mind-set.
“We knew we had to be the aggressor and put pressure on them,” she said, “and that's what we did in the first set.”
Undaunted, Minnesota (26-7) roared to a 8-1 start in Game 2 and never let Creighton find its footing in an eight-point romp.
But the Bluejays responded in game three after a Michelle Sicner kill gave them a commanding 16-8 lead. Or so it seemed.
Minnesota battled back to tie the set at 18 and escaped with a 25-23 victory that affected players on both teams.
“That's the part that hurt the most — that they made that run,” Booth said. “It was a mix of hitting errors, passing errors and Minnesota really doing a lot of good things.”
Gophers junior Ashley Wittman, who led all players with 17 kills, said returning the Bluejays' salvo restored confidence.
“They were just getting point after point, but as we calmed down we were able to tie it back up,” Wittman said. “The more points we got in a row helped our mentality, and we brought it into the fourth set.”
With momentum on their side, the Gophers played an efficient fourth game. Creighton called its first timeout after falling behind 7-4 and its second trailing 11-5. The Jays watched the Minnesota lead balloon to as many as 11 points.
During the Game 3 comeback, McCutcheon said he reminded players to “compete with composure” and “that our good is good enough.”
For all of Creighton's confidence, Booth knew the Gophers' larger margin for error would be tough to overcome. Minnesota hit .314 for the match, several points above its season average. No team had hit better than .232 against Creighton this season. Under Booth, the Bluejays fell to 0-48 when opponents hit .250 or better.
Meanwhile, Minnesota made Creighton sophomore standout Leah McNary labor for her points. McNary, who led all players with 14 kills in Friday's sweep of Marquette, finished tied with Bober for the team lead with 11 kills against the Gophers. McCutcheon praised his team for “containing” McNary and not letting her “get away from us.”
“They have some phenomenal athletes, and offensively they have more firepower,” CU's Booth said. “But I love the defense of my team and I love the serving of our team. We hang our hat on being a blue-collar team that's going to battle to the end.”
Closing the book on a special season was emotional for the Bluejays. A school record 17-match winning streak earned them a best-ever No. 21 ranking. Players saw several ways to define success beyond what happened on the court.
“Special is a good way to describe it,” Bober said. “We came together as a team throughout the season both physically on the court and in our chemistry off the court. It's a tough loss, but we're leaving the program in a good place.”
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>> Video: See Creighton's press conference after the match: