staThe recipe for success in NCAA Championship play always includes a healthy dose of senior leadership and tournament experience. The Golden Gopher volleyball team received just that from its senior standouts, Stephanie Hagen and Lindsey Berg, in sweeping DePaul (30-25, 30-27, 30-25) in the first round of the NCAA Championships on the campus of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Friday.
Minnesota (19-12) will face Northern Iowa in ths second round on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Panthers defeated Northern Illinois, 3-0.
Hagen is accustomed to coming up big in NCAA tournament action, with championship averages of 3.7 kills per game and a career hitting percentage of 356. Those numbers will make a significant jump in the positive direction after the Al-American middle blocker slammed home 20 kills in 29 attempts in a torrid .621 attack percentage.
The other half of the Gophers? sensational senior duo Berg played the kind of match that Minnesota fans have simply have come to expect. The Gopher floor general directed the offense to a .308 attack percentage with 49 assists.
"We can always rely on this kind of talent, and obviously that is important anytime but especially in the NCAA tournament," said Minnesota head coach Mike Hebert of his senior three-time All-Big Ten performers Hagen and Berg. "When Lindsey and Steph are cooking on the slide, they are one of the best duos in the country."
The Gophers received a solid challenge from the Blue Demons (24-9), the champions of Conference USA. Despite falling in three games, DePaul and its senior-laden lineup, fought to the finish.
"There were no surprises out there," said DePaul head coach Dawn Dockstader. "They outplayed us. They were the better team and Hagen is a great player."
Hebert gave credit to DePaul, "DePaul played as hard, if not harder than we had seen on film, they?re a good team. Tonight though, I thought our defense made a difference. We took care of what they liked to do and we just managed to put the ball down a few more times than they did."
Both teams played very well in the first game, neither showing any signs of the jitters. Minnesota, behind six kills by Hagen and freshman outside hitter Trisha Bratford, hit .463, while DePaul tallied an impressive .324 percentage. While both teams attacked efficiently, Minnesota attacked more often, landing 24 kills to the Blue Demons? 15, as the Gophers pulled away for a 30-25 with a 5-1 run to end the game.
The defensive intensity improved on both sides of the net in the second game. DePaul used a 6-1 run midway through the game to take a 19-16 lead. Berg looked to her go-to hitter Hagen, her 10th kill of the match, to halt the rally.
"Steph is always my key person," said Berg. "Her performance tonight, and in a NCAA match, was amazing. I?m going to keep going to her until someone stops her."
The Gophers tied the game at 21-21, then took the lead for good on a DePaul attack error. The Blue Demons fought back to within a point at 28-27, before two more DePaul errors handed Minnesota the victory.
Minnesota never trailed in winning the third game by a score of 30-25. Hagen added seven more kills in the game.
"Everyone was energetic and having fun out there tonight," said Hagen. "I?m excited for tomorrow. It doesn?t matter who play. I liked the feeling we had on the court tonight."
Hebert's final tribute to his seniors, "I hope I get to see them play a few more matches."
The duo has earned at least one more and intends to play more.