MINNEAPOLIS — Shortly after the Gophers were upset last year in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen on their home court, outside hitter Adanna Rollins decided to go to the Final Four anyway. As a spectator, she could watch and learn.
“It was a good experience to go watch because that’s my dream, to go play, and so I mean just like a year ago, watching I was like, ‘Man, I really want to be there,’” Rollins said.
She took a picture of the court at the Target Center, and she sneaks peeks of that photo for motivation here and there.
A year ago, the Gophers were supposed to be in that Final Four. They had plowed through the Big Ten Conference, winning it with a 19-1 league record, and they entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 overall seed.
And then dreams of a national title quickly vanished at the hands of the Oregon Ducks.
A year later, after a season of injuries and adversity, the Gophers are where they expected to be a year earlier. At 8:30 p.m. CT Thursday, No. 7 seed Minnesota (27-5) takes on No. 3 Stanford (28-4) in the second semifinal match of the Final Four in Pittsburgh. Top-seeded Baylor (29-1) plays No. 4 Wisconsin (26-6) in the first semifinal. The matches will be televised on ESPN.
For the Gophers, this is their third trip to the Final Four in the past five years.
“I would imagine when the dust settles and you look back … there was obviously some significant pain exiting in the Sweet Sixteen (in 2018) and we had so many big dreams that didn’t come to fruition,” Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “And this year maybe it was a little more tempered, but also there was some other stuff that we had to go through as well, so the expectations probably were a little bit different. The way we got here obviously was a little bit different.”
Last year, the Gophers rolled through the conference and the script couldn’t have been written more perfectly for them — they would have a chance to take home a title in their own city, in front of their fans in downtown Minneapolis.
That chance to do it in front of a hometown crowd is gone, but a year later, the Gophers are just two wins away from college volleyball’s top prize. While the bigger stage offers plenty of additional pressures, Rollins and CC McGraw, a pair of sophomores, both said at a Tuesday news conference that they plan to treat it like any other match.
“Just to give their comments some context, it’s not that we think we’re robots and we just show up and go through the motions, but (we’ve) got to understand that we can also respond to that response,” McCutcheon said. “If we get an emotional response in the moment, we can take a breath, a step back and get back to just doing our job, and I think that’s really what they’re speaking to — the idea that we can just control these moments, and if we put enough of these good moments together, then maybe you’ve got a chance.”
They’ll start with Stanford, the defending national champion, but a team they beat 3-1 early in the season at a neutral site.
With Stanford seeded third in the tournament, and the Gophers seeded seventh, Minnesota has taken on an underdog role, which the team likes.
“I feel like we’ve been an underdog most of the season,” McCutcheon said. “We’ve had injuries, we’ve had all kinds of stuff we’ve been trying to manage, and like I said, this has been a remarkable group and they’ve dealt with all of that really well. One of the things I think has been great for our competitive maturity is just freeing ourselves of expectations and just playing the best we can, and that seems to have been a pretty good method for us so far.”
Four players earned individual awards from the American Volleyball Coaches Association on Wednesday, rewarded for their strong seasons.
Middle blocker Regan Pittman received her second-straight All-America honor, this year being named to the first team. Right-side hitter Stephanie Samedy received her third All-America honor in as many seasons, being named to the second team.
Outside hitter Alexis Hart earned her second All-America award, named to the third team. McGraw, a libero, received honorable mention.