No. 15 Oregon volleyball will play the No. 2 Minnesota Gophers in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 round on Friday in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after winning its first round and second round matchups against New Mexico State and Baylor.
Oregon will face Minnesota for the second time this season. They last met in Palo Alto, California, on Sept. 7 when the Ducks defeated the Gophers in a four-set thriller when the Minnesota was the No. 1 team in the nation.
“For us we have a pretty good idea of who they are,” head coach Matt Ulmer said. “We both are looking to improve on what we did last time.”
Let’s take a look into the Sweet 16 matchup:
The Ducks are coming off hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014, defeating two worthy foes.
Oregon opened its first round of the tournament against New Mexico State Aggies.
The Ducks were tested early on against the Aggies, the Aggies dominated the Ducks going into set three after taking a strong set two victory. But an overwhelming and unlikely service performance from Willow Johnson crumbled the Aggies and led to their demise and an Oregon victory.
Johnson’s revelation from service adds another weapon to Oregon’s arsenal, if she can keep up that same rate of play. Johnson was aided by Lindsey Vander Weide who was the only player who had double digit kills (18).
In the second round, the Ducks won a five-set thriller against Baylor with no team giving any sway. Oregon persevered and pulled out a gritty victory led by Vander Weide’s 20 kills on an unusually high 60 takes.
Oregon’s 14 blocks came up big as well and led to a Sweet 16 berth despite only having two hitters in double digits, Ronika Stone and Vander Weide.
The Gophers enter the tournament notching their best conference record (19-1) in school history and winning the Big Ten championship.
Minnesota entered the NCAA Tournament with the Big Ten Player of the Year, senior setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who was also named to the First Team All-Big Ten. Opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy and middle blocker Regan Pittman were also named to the First Team All-Big Ten.
“[Seliger-Swenson] incredibly deceptive, she’s very discipline and she’s consistent. Those are three things that make for a great setter,” said Oregon senior setter August Raskie. “If she’s consistent then she can be predictable as well.”
In the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota swept both of its opponents.
Minnesota swept Bryant (25-10, 25-16, 25-21) in the first round. The Gophers held Bryant to a .008 hitting percentage for the match. Minnesota's block had a field day, tallying 16 blocks for the match. Junior outside hitter Alexis Hart led the match with 12 kills and a team high .478 hitting percentage.
Minnesota swept South Carolina (25-12, 25-15, 25-15) in the second round of the tournament. The Gophers held South Carolina to a .147 hitting percentage while Minnesota hit a .348 for the match. Samedy led the Gophers with 12 kills hitting .345 for the match, advancing her team to the Sweet 16.
Oregon won a thrilling four set victory (25-23, 25-23, 25-27, 25-23) back in September.
Vander Weide (14), Stone (19), Johnson (16) and Lauren Page (16) led a diverse, and one of the best, attacks that the Ducks have had all season.
The offense was set up by Raskie, who finished that match with 66 assists.
Oregon outperformed Minnesota statistically in hitting percentage, kills, digs, assists and aces.
Despite Oregon’s early season success, it played Minnesota on a neutral ground in Palo Alto, but this time it will be played on Minnesota's home court. Oregon does pose a better away record (10-3) than a home record (11-5). On the opposite side, Minnesota has a perfect home record (16-0).
A key battle for both sides will be the battle of the setters.
Seliger-Swenson, who averages 11.68 averages per set, will face off against Raskie, who averages 11.71 assists per set for a battle of the nation’s top-10 setters.
The Ducks will need to play at high level to compete with Minnesota. The Gophers were figuring out their rotation and hitters when they first faced the Ducks but now, they are fifth in the nation in hitting percentage (.300) and fourth in the nation in kills per set (14.79). If Oregon can manage the offensive storm and win a crucial second set inside a hostile environment, which they have not played well in during the postseason, they will be set up for an elite berth.
“When you go on the road, pressure is on them,” Raskie said. “They have the crowd and its home court advantage. They got expectations to meet and we are just here to play good volleyball.”
Follow Gabriel Ornelas on Twitter @gabe_ornelas