Maturi Pavilion in December seems like such a warm place. Fans squeezing through the crammed concourses. Opposing players and their families mingling near concession stands. With snow falling outside, it can almost feel welcoming.
Unless, of course, you happen to be playing the Gophers volleyball team.
The NCAA tournament returned to the University of Minnesota campus on Friday night, and the Gophers were characteristically inhospitable, sweeping Southeastern Louisiana 25-21, 25-18, 25-14 as they opened postseason play with a win that was clunky at times, if never in doubt.
The Lions (25-8) were making their NCAA tournament debut after winning the Southland Conference tournament and they were defiantly scrappy. They made the first two sets competitive, trailing 23-21 in the first and 21-17 in the second, before the Gophers (21-8) finished those off and then ran away in the third.
Freshman outside hitter Mckenna Wucherer, making her first tournament appearance and finishing with nine kills and four block assists, said the Lions' play brought out the best in Minnesota.
"They really came out with fight, they came out scrappy and I think we really started to match their scrappiness," she said. "But give them credit, they played their hearts out and played a great match."
Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon said this was the kind of match he always expects in the tournament.
"It was great to have demanded of us this ability to stay in plays and keep going and keep grinding," he said. "I thought that was really good for us. I was really happy with today and really happy with the performance."
Minnesota was balanced, hitting .327 as middle blocker Carter Booth led the team with 11 kills. The Gophers held Southeastern Louisiana to a .131 hitting percentage and posted 11 blocks as they dominated at the net.
Kailin Newsome kept the Lions competitive with a game-high 13 kills, but anytime they got close enough to make the mostly Maroon and Gold-clad crowd of 4,489 nervous, the Gophers simply took over.
"We don't ever play in environments like this," Newsome said. "It was just keeping each other together, keeping our nerves down and playing hard."
This is the final season for McCutcheon, who announced his pending resignation in October, and whoever takes over will have a tough record to top: the Gophers are now 17-1 in NCAA tournament matches at home under him.
Northern Iowa will get the next shot on Saturday night. The Panthers swept Florida State, the regional seven-seed, in the other first-round match at Maturi Pavilion, 26-24, 25-19, 25-21.
The Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament champions have lost once since mid-September and played with extreme cohesion in front of a small but rowdy section of fans who made the trip from Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Two Minnesotans helped lead UNI's attack: Olivia Tjernagel (Waconia) led the team with 13 kills and Kira Fallert (Maplewood) had 10.
Defensively they were swarming, holding the Seminoles to a .122 hitting percentage.
Panthers coach Bobbi Petersen said this is a team that is ready for the challenge.
"We talk a lot about being where your feet are," Tjernagel added. "Just not letting things get to you. We love a good atmosphere."
They will certainly get that on Saturday night.
However the Gophers season plays out, this will be McCutcheon's final home match — with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
Let the temperature plunge, the atmosphere in the Pavilion should be sweltering.