Thursday, November 1, 2007

First impressions

I spent part of the first of two nights Wednesday in the Barn, otherwise known as Williams Arena -- the other part was next door at the Sports Pavilion where I watched Minnesota ended its seven-match losing skid, knocking off Iowa in three games.

Before the skid, Minnesota was in second place in the Big Ten, and among the top ten in the weekly volleyball rankings. Seven matches later, the Gophers are out of the Top 25 for the first time in a year and trying to get back to .500.

It didn't matter that the Gopher volleyballers defeated an Iowa squad with only one conference win this fall. At this point of the season, with NCAA tournament hopes hanging in the balance, you take any victory any way, and against anyone, any way you can.

As some of the hideous Halloween costumes some fans wore, Wednesday's win wasn't pretty. The Hawkeyes uses an offspeed game, which Minnesota Head Coach Mike Hebert explained, "caught us napping. It took us a while to get used to."

The keys to victory came down to three B's: better passing, better trust among teammates and better communications. It was the lack of these keys which occurred during the seven-match skid, the Minnesota coach pointed out.

"The team seemed to trust each other more," adds Hebert. "The communication was better as we got into the match."

There also was a fourth B -- better talent: Other than a momentary letdown in Game 2, and a slow start in the third game, Minnesota never was in trouble against the spunky Hawks. The winners' better talent eventually wore the visitors down in the first Wednesday home match on the season.

After the win, the Gophers players huddled and jumped around for extended minutes in jubilation. It's been seven long matches since U-M have been able to leave the court victorious.

"It is great to win a match," admits Hebert. "We were confident coming into this match."

"We finally came out and proved ourselves," Brook Dieter concurred.

Meanwhile next door, the U-M women hoopsters had no problems getting past Minnesota State-Mankato in their exhibition game opener. I don't report scores and stats because they are all for nought -- they do not carry over into the regular season, which will begin next week.

For 18 minutes or so, Head Coach Pam Borton was pleased with her squad, especially defensively. After that, the team's ball pressure was so-so, as well as the Gophers' post play.

Sophomore centers Ashley Ellis-Milan and Zoe Harper are the primary post players, and neither player imposed their will on the smaller Mavericks on a consistent basis during the game.

"We are going to get better," pledges Ellis-Milan, who should start because her offensive game is a tad better than Harper. Supposedly the two are engaged in a battle for the starting center job. "We need to be more aggressive and tough, and learn how to work inside."

Although it was only an exhibition, Gopher fans saw what most teams plan to do to Emily Fox -- go at her hard. Which is what the Mavericks did early on. Put pressure on her full court. Make her work. Take her out of the game.

The junior point guard, who people -- including her coach -- wants to make into the second coming of Lindsay Whalen, will have to deal with pressure "and have to get used to that," notes Borton.

Korriene Campbell also debuted as a starter at small forward. "I feel really comfortable shooting and passing," the sophomore says. Maybe but I didn't see it in her shot, which is often painful to watch. Still her rebounding and aggressiveness still is in top form, which Minnesota will need more from her than a lot of scoring.

My first impression -- too early to judge. Even the players agree.

"We are getting ready for the season," concludes Campbell.

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