No. 1 Nebraska fought through some early struggles to down Northwestern in four on Wednesday night.
The theme of the match for Coach John Cook was one word: focus.
“We have a saying, you can quote me on it: if you’re not ready, the ball finds you,” Cook said. “It happens so much, and I’m going to show them video tomorrow. You’ll just see, they’re not ready for it and then here comes the ball, and that’s how they land. I think more more balls dropped tonight than maybe the entire year so far. So it’s focus.”
The Cornhuskers (24-0, 15-0 Big Ten) snapped out of whatever funk they were in early and found their focus in time to beat the Wildcats 28-26, 24-26, 25-11, 25-20 at the Devaney Center.
Bergen Reilly finished with 45 assists, 12 digs, a block, a kill and an ace to lead the Nebraska offense as the Huskers hit .278. Lexi Rodriguez was second behind her with 12 digs, passing Dani Busboom-Kelly to move into eighth place on the program’s career digs chart.
“Lexi should be the greatest ever by the time she leaves here,” Cook said. “That’s a good milestone.”
Merritt Beason and Harper Murray led Nebraska with 13 kills apiece, though both hit under .200. Beason added 10 kills and three blocks for her fourth double-double while Murray chipped in seven digs and four blocks. Ally Batenhorst added 10 kills on .286 hitting.
The middle blockers had a big match, combining for 19 kills on .577 hitting and 13 blocks. Bekka Allick finished with 11 kills on .562 hitting and seven blocks while Andi Jackson added eight kills on .600 hitting and six blocks.
As a team, Nebraska recorded nine of its 13 blocks in the final two sets after struggling in that area in games one and two.
“I think towards the beginning of the match we were super undisciplined, including me,” Jackson said. “That’s one thing that I was talking to Coach and Jaylen [Reyes] about. I think we went out there and we just went away from our training, and then in that third set, we came back and trusted our trading and got a more disciplined block, including me. I just had to go back to what I’ve learned go back to the basics. I was trying way too hard and moving way too much, and so just going back to what I know.”
Julia Sangiacomo, the prolific outside hitter who missed the previous meeting between Nebraska and Northwestern with a knee injury, posted a match-high 16 kills in the match, though it came on .167 hitting as the Huskers made her work for everything she got. As a team, Northwestern hit .143.
“I thought our middles did a really good job of making adjustments,” Cook said. “Their middles were on fire to start with. We made some great adjustments stop them. We had some great adjustments on Julia and we shut their middles down, which was really nice. I thought we picked up our energy and started playing a little bit better as the match went on. But Northwestern was playing really well, which I knew they were going to. Our team had to step it up. But the negatives were we let a lot of balls just land, which I haven’t seen that before. We had a close game in game two; at home, we should win that game.”
Nebraska executed well offensively throughout the first set, but the Huskers were out of sync defensively and allowed the Wildcats to hang with them as both teams hit over .300 in the set. It was tight throughout until Nebraska committed four straight errors (one service, three attack) to give the Wildcats a 20-17 lead.
Soon after, the Huskers fired back with its own 4-0 run to take a 23-22 lead. Five sideouts followed as Nebraska failed to take advantage of two set points, and Northwestern pulled ahead at 26-25 to earn its own game point. However, Beason tied it up with a kill and Murray teamed up with Allick for a block to put Nebraska back in front, and this time the Huskers closed it out with a Murray kill.
“We were lucky to win game one,” Cook said. “We made some nice plays at the end there. But just how we started off, that just sends a message to the other team like ‘Oh, these guys aren’t into it.’ But I don’t think our team understands that yet. I’m trying to teach them.”
Nebraska hit .361 behind six kills on .556 hitting from Beason. The Wildcats hit .306 behind five kills on .556 hitting from Averie Hernandez. The first set included 17 ties and eight lead changes.
The Huskers got off to a much better start in set two, using an 8-2 run early to build a 10-4 lead, but it didn’t last long. Northwestern used a 5-0 run to tighten it up and turn it into another tight battle.
Four more ties followed before Northwestern used a 4-0 run to earn set point. Murray ended the run with a kill, but Kennedy Hill answered with one of her own then a pair of Wildcats stuffed Beason to even the match at 1-1.
Nebraska narrowly edged Northwestern in hitting, .135 to .128, but the Wildcats were plus-two in service points thanks to three Nebraska misfires to earn the deuce-game win. Murray had five kills without an error but the Wildcats shut down Beason.
A different Nebraska team returned from the locker room after the intermission as the Huskers scored the first four points of the set and never looked back, closing on a 13-3 run.
“We just came together in the locker room and decided that we weren’t playing Husker volleyball,” Jackson said. “Instead of getting selfish and turning away from each other, we just leaned into each other and went out there and played Husker volleyball.”
Nebraska hit .417 in the set behind four kills on five swings from Batenhorst. The Huskers had four blocks in the set and held Northwestern to minus-.074 hitting.
The Wildcats turned the tables in set four, opening with a 7-2 run, but Nebraska used a 6-0 spurt capped by a Laney Choboy ace to take the lead at 9-8. Northwestern ended the run with a kill, but the Huskers gradually pulled away the rest of the set. The lead peaked at seven before Northwestern saved three match points, but Allick finally closed it out with an overpass smash.
Allick led the way with four kills as Nebraska hit .241 and held Northwestern to .158 with five more blocks.
Nebraska will continue its final home stand of the regular season on Sunday when Illinois visits town on Sunday for a 2 p.m. CT match.