By Brandon Alter/Photo courtesy of SC Athletics
Twenty-five, the number of points needed to win a set in a volleyball match. Most points come from kills, when the attacking player spikes the ball straight into the floor on the opposing side of the net.
On Saturday, South Carolina barely got to 25 kills for its entire match against powerhouse Minnesota in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, as they were thoroughly outclassed by the No. 2 overall seed Golden Gophers on their home floor in St. Paul, Minn. in a season-ending on Saturday night.
Minnesota (27-3, 19-1 BIG 10) methodically swept the Gamecocks (20-10, 10-8 SEC), keeping them at no more than 15 points in each set, winning 25-12, 25-15, 25-15.
The Gamecocks looked out of sorts. They led three times in the entire match: 1-0, 2-1 and 4-3 in set three. In each set, they opened close, only to have the Golden Gophers go on a run and cruise to victory in the set and the match.
“I don’t think we played our best volleyball tonight,” head coach Tom Mendoza told Spurs & Feathers in a phone interview. “We would have liked to play a little bit better, but Minnesota is a good team.”
Junior Mikayla Shields led the Gamecocks in points for the second straight night, with eight. She was followed by senior Courtney Furlong, again for the second straight night, who had six. Britt McClean, who transferred to South Carolina after two seasons with the Golden Gophers, finished with five. In her final game in the in a Gamecock jersey, Aubrey Ezell, who was the NCAA active leader in aces, was held without an ace.
Service was a big reason the Gamecocks were unable to sustain any added pressure on Minnesota. They had one ace, courtesy of Addie Bryant, but seven service errors. Mendoza said on Friday that serving is a lot like pitching in baseball, and that he likes being aggressive.
“When we did get good serves, I thought Minnesota, for the most part, handled them well,” Mendoza said. He added that South Carolina’s servers were never really able to get into a rhythm because Minnesota was able to get the point back efficiently.
Despite the outcome, this was a historic season for the Gamecocks that ushered in a new era of South Carolina volleyball with Mendoza at the helm.
In his first season, he doubled the team’s SEC win total, which gave them a winning conference record for the first time in a decade, led them to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years and led the team to 20 wins for the first time in 10 years, despite three games being canceled due to Hurricane Florence.
“We wanted to show that South Carolina volleyball can be successful on a national stage,” Mendoza said.
Furlong and Ezell highlight a senior class whose legacy will be sticking with the team and leading the team to the new standard.
“You always try to leave a place in a better state than when you got there,” Mendoza said of the senior class. “I think they can certainly feel like they have done that.”
With a majority of the roster returning next season, Mendoza believes expectations may be higher for next season.
“I think that’s a great problem to have,” he said. “The alternative is failure and low expectations. … Success means people expect more of you, and as competitors, that’s what we want.”
The book may be closed on this season, but the next installment of South Carolina volleyball is a bright one.