No. 1 Nebraska let one set slip away on Sunday afternoon, but the Huskers rallied to take down a hot Illinois team 3-1 in the penultimate home match of the regular season.
The Fighting Illini had won seven of their last eight under former Nebraska assistant Chris Tamas, with the only loss coming at No. 2 Wisconsin, but the Huskers took care of business 25-14, 25-14, 24-2, 25-22 on Sunday.
“I thought we came out and played two really great first games and and then Illinois just raised their level in game three,” Coach John Cook said. “We had our chance to win it and couldn’t pull it off, so that was really the biggest disappointment of the night was we didn’t finish that game three when we had a really good opportunity and then we lost it. We’re trying not to lose two-point games. I’ve got to give Illinois credit, they made some great plays. They served really tough and game four was a great game.”
The Huskers (25-0, 16-0 Big Ten) got off to a great start offensively before slowing down in games two and three. The team hit .237 overall with great offensive balance as all five hitters finished between nine and 12 kills, though the three pins struggled with efficiency to varying degrees.
Ally Batenhorst led that group with 11 kills on .250 hitting, Merritt Beason matched her with 11 kills on .121 and Harper Murray finished strong to add 10 kills on .114 hitting.
“The outsides, were not terminating tonight,” Cook said. “Merritt struggled, Harper struggled, Ally struggled at times but ended up hitting .250. But our middles, Bekka hit .474. It’s been a good week for the middles; those guys hit well Wednesday night too. We’ve been working hard on it and we need it. We need middles to be able to kill balls, and I think they saved us several times tonight.”
Bekka Allick led Nebraska with 12 kills on .474 hitting and five blocks while Andi Jackson added nine kills on 11 errorless swings (.818 hitting). The tandem combined for 19 kills on 26 attacks in Wednesday’s four-set win over Northwestern.
Bergen Reilly put up 45 assists, eight digs, two blocks and two aces while Lexi Rodriguez posted a match-high 16 digs and an ace of her own. The Huskers finished with more aces than errors for the first time all season at 10 to eight. Murray led the way with four aces while Beason added three.
“We’ve been working hard on serving and I thought they did a good job tonight, and those aces were legit aces,” Cook said.
Nebraska used a couple of extended serving runs from Murray and Beason to build a 10-point cushion early before a 5-0 Illini run cut it in half at 15-10. The Huskers responded with a 4-0 run of their own to stretch it back out and maintained a comfortable cushion the rest of the way. They won six of the last seven rallies as Allick capped a perfect set with her sixth kill on her sixth swing.
Nebraska hit .324 as Batenhorst added four kills on six attacks to Allick’s six. Illinois hit minus-.033 as the Huskers doubled the Illini in digs, 16 to eight.
Nebraska used a pair of 4-0 runs early in set two as well to build a 10-3 lead, and the Huskers had an answer every time Illinois made a push. Nebraska closed the set strong again, winning the last six rallies as Murray found the floor out of the back row to close it out.
Nebraska struggled offensively, recording just 10 kills on .160 hitting, but the defense picked up thee slack as Illinois hit minus-.167 with nine errors and just five kills.
After smooth sailing in the first two sets, Nebraska hit a rut in set three. The Illini ripped off eight straight points with Jessica Nunge at the service line to take a 9-4 lead. Allick finally ended the run with a kill after Hayden Kubik checked in and passed Nunge’s serve to get the Huskers out of that rotation.
The Huskers settled in from there and chipped away at the lead until they pulled ahead 15-14 on three straight Illini attack errors including a Nebraska block. Six more ties and a couple of lead changes followed before Nebraska scored two straight to earn match point, but the Huskers couldn’t close it out. The Illini finished the set on a 4-0 run to extend the match.
Nunge went off for 10 kills in the set, nearly matching Nebraska’s 12 by herself. The Huskers hit .171 while the Illini hit .333.
“I think we just knew that going into the fourth, we’re going to have to attack it with everything and I don’t think we necessarily let up, but we just didn’t get some of those big points there at the end,” Rodriguez said. “So I think going into the fourth, we just knew we were going to have to be super aggressive, serve aggressive, make sure we stay disciplined on defense and just play our game.”
After a back and forth start in set four, Nebraska created a bit of separation with a 3-0 run that included an Illinois foot fault and a Beason ace. The Huskers pushed that lead to five before Illinois rallied to tie it up at 13-13 and 15-15. Jackson put the Huskers back in front with a kill and the Huskers managed to maintain the advantage the rest of the way. With a one-point lead at 23-22, Batenhorst and Beason terminated on the final two rallies to finish it off.
“Ally had a huge kill there at the end of game four, Harper got an ace serve, so those guys stepped up when we needed them and made some big plays,” Cook said. “I thought our effort and hustle tonight was exceptional.”
The highlight of the match came with Nebraska leading 10-7 in the fourth. Illinois took a big swing that Rodriguez dug up far into the air. Laney Choboy sprinted under it, bumping it back into play before falling into the front row of the student section behind the baseline. Rodriguez bumped it back over then Beason and Allick stuffed the return shot for the point, drawing the loudest ovation of the day from the Devaney Center crowd.
“It was awesome,” Rodriguez said. “I hit it and I saw her on the ground. I knew she was the only one on the team that was probably going to be able to get that, and I was literally just like, ‘Come on, go, you’ve got it.’ I’m not surprised. She’s a hustler and she makes plays like that all the time.”
Nebraska hit .275 in the set behind five kills from Murray while Illinois hit .184. Terry notched six more kills, but the Huskers forced her into four errors as well.
Nebraska managed to avoid tripping up the day after Wisconsin fell to Penn State, giving the Huskers a two-match lad in the Big Ten title raced heading into the final two weeks. The Huskers will host Michigan for their final home match of the regular season on Friday before closing out the year with three straight road matches.