MINNEAPOLIS — From racing up the stairs inside the UNI-Dome to constantly pushing each other to achieve more, members of Northern Iowa’s volleyball team went to work after last season ended in heartbreaking fashion with a second five-set NCAA Tournament loss in as many years.
That work paid off during Friday’s 2017 NCAA opener. UNI left no doubt, winning the long rallies and never conceding a point during a sweep over ACC co-champion Louisville, 25-21, 25-15, 27-25, inside the University of Minnesota’s Maturi Pavilion.
The victory marked UNI’s first NCAA win since a sweep of Kansas State in the opening round of the 2012 tournament. The Panthers (27-8) will face No. 7 Minnesota at 8 p.m. Saturday in an attempt to secure the program’s fourth trip to the Sweet 16 and first since 2002.
“We worked the entire offseason, the entire year for this moment,” said middle Piper Thomas, who landed 18 kills on .500 hitting while Karlie Taylor added 17 kills from her outside hitter position at a .387 clip. “We all believe in what we’re capable of and what we can do. We talk about it all the time. It’s been cool to feel that energy towards a common goal.
“I think as a team we feel really blessed to have put in the work then so we can have success now.”
Fight is a word that has flowed freely from UNI coach Bobbi Petersen’s players throughout the years, and her team put those words into action on this night.
The Panthers flipped momentum in set one with a 9-1 go-ahead run to get to set point at 24-19. Thomas, who landed eight kills in the opener, also used her athleticism during the run with a left-handed attack on a mistimed jump that induced a free ball teammate Bri Weber put away.
Taylor then commanded set two with nine kills and a jump serve ace on set point during a frame in which UNI held Louisville (24-7) to negative hitting with eight kills and nine attack errors.
A Louisville team that owned a 6-1 record in five set matches appeared poised to extend this contest after building a 24-22 lead in set three. UNI, however, wouldn’t allow it.
The Panthers fought off three set points. Taylor’s 17th kill got UNI to match point, and Moriah Johnson and Heather Hook joined forces for a block to convert the first sweep opportunity.
“We talk all season long about fighting one point at a time, and I think tonight we had the best example of that,” Petersen said. “The last set there really proved that. It’s easy to communicate those words but to actually live that and breathe that, I thought they did a really good job of that tonight.”
In addition to Thomas and Taylor’s impressive work finishing points, UNI’s defense was up to the challenge. The Panthers out-hit Louisville .267 to .159. A physical Louisville team that had often out-blocked its opposition this season saw its eight stuff blocks matched by UNI.
Weber led the back row effort with 18 of UNI’s 66 digs. As a group, the 2017 Panthers now own a school record for most digs in a season at 2,501, surpassing a mark that had stood since 1987.
That fight helped neutralize a Louisville team that had won its last 11 matches and shocked the ACC by going from eighth in the preseason poll to conference champions.
“We didn’t win very many long rallies tonight,” said Louisville coach Dani Busboom Kelly, a former assistant and player at national power Nebraska. “UNI is fearless. I’ve seen them play a lot throughout my years as a player and a coach. They compete really hard and they did that at a very high level.”
Both Thomas and Taylor credited the work of their back row defense along with senior setter Heather Hook, who finished with 38 assists, as keys to advancing in this year’s tournament.
“I think Heather put a lot of balls up in really good situations,” Taylor said. “What motivates me is the great defense we were playing. We were getting crazy good ups and I feel like, ‘OK, I’ve got to put the ball away now.’ You can’t just waste that really good up.
“I love that we can get Heather to the second round. This is her first time going to the second round and we want to just keep fighting for more and more games for our only senior.”