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Andy Ybarra / Special to The Forum, Published December 04 2010

Sweep repeat: Gophers knock NDSU out of NCAA volleyball tournament, but Bison show progress

MINNEAPOLIS – As the Minnesota Gophers celebrated their first-round NCAA tournament victory over NDSU on Friday night, Bison interim coach Kari Thompson gathered her solemn-looking team in a circle on the court.

Thompson said her team was “completely different” from the one that was swept 3-0 by the Gophers in their previous NCAA tournament appearance in 2008.

Different or not, though, the result was the same: A 3-0 loss. Season over. This time, it was 25-21, 25-21, 25-12.

“I told them to keep their heads high and that they have nothing to be ashamed of and be very proud of their season and the way we’ve played,” Thompson said. “Keep the tears in, not thinking about it being over, just think about the memories we created. That’s what it’s all about.”

At least they’ll remember it was much more competitive this time around.

Unlike the last time these teams met – when the Gophers won 25-18, 25-14, 25-14 – the Bison played solid. NDSU led Minnesota early in the first two sets only to watch Gophers freshman Tori Dixon help spark rallies both times. The Gophers finished the job with a dominating third keyed by Ashley Wittman’s nine kills.

“We were close the whole game, and we just couldn’t finish it,” said NDSU’s Chrissy Knuth, one of six players on the current roster who played on the 2008 team. “It was very disappointing. We’ve done so much this season ... we thought we were ready for it a little bit better.”

Brynn Joki led NDSU with 10 kills and 12 digs. But the Bison had only five kills the third set to Minnesota’s 15, and eight digs to the Gophers’ 21.

“When you play somebody like the Gophers, you can’t really have a lapse,” senior Lauren McLaughlin said. “You have to be solid the whole game. We kind of had a letdown there and couldn’t recover from it. I think that’s the most disappointing part of it.”

NDSU led by four twice in the first set before the Gophers ripped off an 8-0 run to grab the lead for good. Dixon had five kills, including four straight, during the stretch. The Bison fought back to 22-20 on a kill by Lambertson before Minnesota closed out the set with a 3-1 run.

In the second, the Bison again looked strong to start the set before another Dixon-led Gophers rally. The freshman had two kills, a block and an ace during a 6-1 run that pulled Minnesota to 13-12. McLaughlin was on the receiving end of many of those kills.

“Lauren on Dixon, she was playing inside of 10 feet expecting her to hit it, and she was hitting it right at her head and she wasn’t ready for those,” Thompson said.

Then came the third.

NDSU’s last lead came at 2-1 before Minnesota put the Bison away with runs of 6-0 and 10-0.

“We let them get on a run. They’re a good team and volleyball’s a lot about momentum. So if you let a team that talented get away from you and give them points, you’re not going to be able to make that up,” Thompson said.

Wittman’s 14 kills led Minnesota, while Lauren Gibbemeyer added 11 and Tabi Love 10. Jessica Granquist had a match-high 17 digs while Wittman had 16.

“Our mantra for the week was, ‘Nobody else exists besides North Dakota State,’” said Gophers coach Mike Hebert. “We were not going to get caught looking past anybody.”

Asked if he saw a difference between the NDSU team he saw Friday night and the ’08 squad, Hebert said, “The first time (the Bison) were here, I thought they were kind of happy to be in the playoffs. ... This time, there was no intimidation. They came to play, and that was obvious for the very first point.”

It was the 11th meeting between the two schools. Minnesota now leads the series 10-1 dating back to 1973. NDSU’s only win was a 3-1 victory in Minneapolis on Sept. 24, 1984.

It was a disappointing end to a difficult year that saw Thompson take over head coaching duties when Erich Hinterstocker resigned at midseason. Thompson said she’s confident the experience will sit well with younger players who will try to lead the Bison back to the tournament next season.

As for those who played their final game of their collegiate careers, they tried to find the positives.

“I don’t think there’s a better way to go out this season with the team that I was able to play with and especially with what we’ve accomplished this year,” McLaughlin said. “It’s definitely disappointing, and I can’t believe that it’s over, but I can’t imagine a better way to go out, the way we got to finish our season together.”

NDSU: VandenBergh 4-2-0, Lopez 2-2-1 (26 assists), Knuth 6-2-0, Joki 10-1-2 (12 digs), Lambertson 6-5-0, Sheridan 2-2-1.

M: Gibbemeyer 11-4-0, Dixon 8-1-0, Tabberson 6-0-1 (38 assists), Harms 1-2-1, Wittman 14-0-0, Love 10-2-0, Granquist 0-0-0 (17 digs).