As the floor shook inside Maturi Pavilion on Saturday night, the Gophers had No. 1 Nebraska rattled.
The Cornhuskers were on match point and couldn't get a ball down against a furious Gophers defense. Melani Shaffmaster and Arica Davis steadied for a block. Julia Hanson dove to keep a ball alive. Zeynep Palabiyik controlled a soaring attack attempt from Nebraska's Harper Murray. Finally, Taylor Landfair crushed a spike — point U. The Gophers were one point away from tying the fourth set.
That they couldn't get that next point, with Shaffmaster and Landfair just missing on an attack that was turned away by Nebraska's defense, is what keeps Keegan Cook searching.
"We're not close to what we think is possible," the Gophers coach said as he drove home from practice Tuesday night. "That is one thing everyone in this program shares in common, just this belief in the potential of this group. Until we reach it."
They still have time. Minnesota opens the NCAA tournament on Friday as unseeded underdogs against Utah State in Omaha. The Aggies were the regular-season champs in the Mountain West, a team with a fantastic service approach and seven seniors on the roster. Creighton, the host school, looms as a potential second-round opponent.
That the Gophers are unseeded is a reminder that for a large swath of the season they failed to play to their ability. That they won 10 of their last 14 matches and pushed top-seeded Nebraska to the limit is a reminder they can play with anyone.
“We are going to make a huge run. I think everyone in the bracket is kind of scared to see the name Minnesota out there.”
Minnesota is nearly a year removed from Cook taking over for Hugh McCutcheon, and the team has finally found a rotation that feels settled and players have a solid understanding of what is expected of them.
What does it mean that it took this long to figure out?
"We went through a lot of permutations looking for the right mix. Each team is a puzzle. This puzzle lasted a little while," Cook said. "When we finally settled in this last month you started to see the little bits coming together to make it work."
New roles take shape
Here's what's worked. The Gophers have figured out their substitutions, bringing in Palabiyik as a defensive specialist to replace opposite hitter Lydia Grote, and using Hanson and Elise McGhie as serve subs, which adds another layer of defensive help with libero Kylie Murr.
On top of that, they have discovered the right pace for their offense, slowing things down a hair and letting Landfair, Mckenna Wucherer and Grote find better connections with Shaffmaster. Middle blockers Davis and Phoebe Awoleye have been more involved on the attack, and Shaffmaster is setting the back row when the opportunity presents itself.
Adjusting roles and expectations has required a heavy amount of communication and trust between players and coaches. Wucherer said Cook sends a text message to each player before a match, explaining what their role will be. While coaches clarified, execution came down to the players.
"We said the coaches can't really do it for us," Wucherer said. "As much passion and confidence as they have instilled in us at practice, we weren't transferring that onto the court.
"We came together and told ourselves that we have the level of talent to go all the way to the national championship ... but we have to work together as a team. As I said before, we can't win this game by ourselves. If we all buy-in, we can go really far."
Cook doesn't even use the word expectations. This year the Gophers have tried to remove themselves from outside influence or opinion — let growth be internal, together.
“We're not close to what we think is possible. That is one thing everyone in this program shares in common, just this belief in the potential of this group”
But they are not blind to how others might view their regular season: A top-ranked team that couldn't sustain the highest level of competition with a new coaching staff, that had to hang on as questions swirled around the program after devastating losses.
Ready to make a run
It would be easy for them to take satisfaction in reaching this point, a dramatic turnaround to get back in the tournament for a ninth-straight season.
They are completely unsatisfied.
"We are going to make a huge run," Wucherer said. "I think everyone in the bracket is kind of scared to see the name Minnesota out there."
Cook has refused to look back at the journey this season has taken "as long as the summit is ahead of us."
If they are to climb it, they will have to go back to that last match against Nebraska and push their level of play even higher. Cook has watched it happen before.
"The learning accelerates in these moments," he said. "I have seen players completely transform themselves ... and go from being good players to becoming All-Americans and having that totally change the course of their careers.
"The tournament is a formative place. If you can make it to that second weekend, you can see someone change in that moment."
Luckily the fight to change is something this team knows well.