The No. 7 Stanford women’s volleyball team (27-5) advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament on Friday after it fought off No. 10 Minnesota (29-7) in straight sets, 28-26, 25-23, 25-22. In a match in which any of the games could have gone in either direction, late Cardinal runs at the end of the first and third games proved to make a big difference.
“I’m very proud of our team for how we hung together at the end of each set,” said head coach John Dunning. “It’s one of the things we’ve been trying to fight through and become good at.”
Overall, the Cardinal outhit the Gophers .303 to .254 and outblocked them nine to four. Sophomore middle blocker Inky Ajanaku continued her streak of dominance over the second half of the season as she led the team with 12 kills and six blocks in the match. Senior middle blocker Carly Wopat also added 11 kills and five blocks and is averaging 1.61 blocks per set over her last four matches.
The Cardinal found itself behind early in the first set, trailing 4-1 right out of the gate. However, it then won three straight points and later took the lead during a five-point run on the serve of sophomore setter Madi Bugg that included two aces. The Gophers inched closer later in the set and saved four set points, but the Card ultimately clinched the first set on consecutive kills by sophomore outside hitter Brittany Howard.
In the second set, Stanford trailed late by a score of 16-13 before a five-point run — once again on Bugg’s serve — saw the Cardinal take its first lead of the game at 18-16. From there, the teams traded points before a Minnesota error on Stanford’s set point sealed the game.
The Cardinal maintained a lead for nearly all of the third set, but some uncharacteristic lapses in communication between Bugg and the Stanford hitters allowed Minnesota to creep back into the game and eventually take a 22-21 lead. However, after a Stanford timeout allowed the team to regroup, the Cardinal closed out the match on a victorious four-point run bookended by Ajanaku kills.
One of the factors contributing to the Cardinal victory was Stanford’s ability to steadily control the momentum of play — as has been the case all season — even when threatened by stretches in which Minnesota was able to evade the Cardinal blockers.
“Minnesota has a different style of play then we’re used to,” Wopat said. “They are very good at seeing the court and making shots, so we had to prepare ourselves for that and I think we did a really good job.”
With the victory, Stanford will advance to its 24th regional final in school history and will take on a familiar foe in No. 2 Penn State (31-2), who defeated Michigan State in four sets earlier on Friday. The Nittany Lions and the Cardinal have split 14 all-time head-to-head matchups but their last two postseason meetings still haunt Dunning — losses in consecutive finals in 2008 and 2009.
The regional final will pair up two of the nation’s premier blocking teams. Entering this week, Penn State was leading the nation with 3.10 blocks per set while Stanford was ranked third with 3.02 blocks per set. Senior middle Katie Slay leads the Nittany Lion front, averaging 1.64 blocks per frame — third-best in the nation. The match will arguably be Stanford’s toughest test in what has been a roller-coaster season.
“The things that we’re working on are the things that happen tomorrow in terms of going to the next play and saying ‘whatever’ on the last one and just going forward because they can make you look bad for a moment,” Dunning said. “If you play in a great setting for something like going to the Final Four against a great team that’s well-coached, what more could you want?”
This time with a spot in the Final Four on the line, the Cardinal and Nittany Lions will fight to keep their seasons alive in the Lexington, Ky. regional final. First serve is set for 1 p.m. today and the match will be televised on ESPNU.
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.