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MINNEAPOLIS -- History came to life as an old rivalry was renewed Saturday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Determined to reach its first Sweet 16 since 2002, Northern Iowa answered No. 7 seed Minnesota's first punch by landing a crisp jab of its own. The host Golden Gophers then recovered with a determined lock-down defensive effort to end UNI's spirited run, 25-18, 20-25, 25-19, 25-17, in front of a near-capacity crowd of 4,657 fans inside the Maturi Pavilion.

Minnesota (28-5), a Final Four team each of the previous two seasons, has now blocked UNI's path to the Sweet 16 twice. The Golden Gophers prevailed over UNI in the second round in 2003 after the Panthers won a memorable five-setter inside the historic West Gym to reach the Sweet 16 in 2001.

UNI (27-9) was attempting to match the longest postseason run in program history with a fourth trip to the round of 16.

"It was a pretty special night of volleyball," Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said, unprompted at the end of his team's post-match press conference. "I don't know if you guys appreciate the caliber of the two teams that were going at it. The rallies and the stuff that was happening on the floor was one of the best performances of the year."

With Minnesota's back row defenders over throwing their bodies all over the court to extend rallies, UNI coach Bobbi Petersen saw the Big Ten power match the type of scrappy, resilient effort that has been a hallmark of her program.

"It was some really high level volleyball," Petersen said. "Minnesota did a really good job of picking up their defense and I'm hoping we sparked that from them.

"I thought we really did a good job, especially in the first two games, of getting good touches on the ball and having our defense be able to make some strong moves. ... There was a lot of great rallies that we will at some point go back and look at and be excited about."

Junior setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, a key cog within a fast-paced attack during Minnesota's two Final Four runs, worked sophomore outside hitter Alexis Hart heavy early before utilizing her middle attackers down the stretch as the Golden Gophers out-hit UNI, .311 to .176.

Hart finished with a match-high 20 kills on 55 attempts, and her team held an 11-1 advantage in stuff blocks to pressure UNI's attackers throughout this contest. Libero Dalianliz Rosado backed that net presence up with 26 digs to neutralize shots from Karlie Taylor out of the back row to Piper Thomas in the middle.

Taylor and fellow outside hitter Bri Weber each posted double-doubles to lead UNI's determined effort. Taylor tallied 15 kills and 15 digs, and Weber finished with 16 kills and 14 digs. Thomas added 11 kills on 35 attempts in a tough match-up against Minnesota's towering and athletic middles.

Heather Hook, UNI’s lone senior, finished with 41 assists to pass Kara Galer for No. 4 on her school’s career chart with a total of 4,288.

"They blocked well, but I give our hitters credit," Petersen said. "I think we've had matches throughout the year where we've shied away from it a little bit once we get stuffed a couple times, but I thought our hitters stayed aggressive."

After Minnesota used three of its five stuff blocks during a 5-0 run to pull away late in set one, Taylor came alive in the second set with six of UNI's 18 kills on an efficient .364 clip. The Panthers, however, were held to .122 and .132 hitting in sets three and four as Minnesota's defense took over.

With the score tied at 14 in the pivotal third set, 6-foot-5 freshman middle Regan Pittman recorded two kills and a block, and Hart added a block and kill during a 7-1 run that allowed the Golden Gophers to pull away. Minnesota then converted its first 10 sideout opportunities and landed 17 kills on .457 hitting to dominate the final set.

Even if defeat, UNI earned Minnesota's respect.

"UNI is one heck of a team and certainly they played like it tonight," McCutcheon said. "It was a great battle. I'm really proud of our athlete's ability to maintain composure, execute the plan, to make adjustments in the match, and most importantly to compete like crazy."

At the end of the night, UNI had few regrets. The program has retained national relevancy, reaching the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season and playing in the second round for the first time since 2012.

"It was a fun match to play against Minnesota and get this opportunity we had to be in the NCAA," Weber said. "I'm just very proud of our team and what we were able to accomplish this year."

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Courier

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