After Arkansas’ final serve sailed long and Nebraska gathered to celebrate punching its ticket to the Final Four, the Huskers took a lap around the Devaney Center, slapping hands with the fans in the front row.
“It was really cool,” Freshman Bergen Reilly said. “Everyone says there is no place like Nebraska. Our fans come out and they prove it every single night and every single game. Just kind of cool to be able to give back to them a little bit and just say ‘thank you’ to them just by doing that little thing.”
The 3-1 win for the No. 1 Huskers over the third-seeded Razorbacks capped a 21-0 record for the Cornhuskers at home this year in a season that saw Nebraska become the first female team in NCAA history to surpass 250,000 in home attendance for a single season, thanks largely to the Memorial Stadium match.
“Our crowd was unbelievable today,” Coach John Cook said. “Regional finals are the hardest matches to win. Our players really showed some grit and hung in there when things were ugly and found a way to win. We are extremely happy and I’m really proud of our team for the grit and resilience they showed today.”
The Huskers had to pull off comeback wins in the first and third sets en route to a 26-24, 25-14, 21-25, 25-23 victory. Winning two-point games has been a theme of the season for John Cook and a big part of the 32-1 record, and it played a big role on Saturday as well.
“I thought it was a heck of a match,” Cook said. “Arkansas is a really, really well-coached team. They serve and pass as well as any team, if not the best team we played all year. They’ve got every shot in the book. I was very, very impressed. They play great defense. So it was a great match and it came down to, like we always talk about, winning two-point games. Game one was a two point game and game four was a two point game, and we found a way to do it.”
Lincoln Regional All-Tournament Team MVP Merritt Beason led the Huskers with 19 kills, 11 digs and eight blocks. Freshman Harper Murray added 15 kills, 12 digs and three blocks.
Reilly (40 assists, 16 digs, four blocks, two kills, one ace) and junior Lexi Rodriguez (match-high 20 digs and eight assists) joined Beason on the all-tournament team.
Bekka Allick only totaled five kills offensively but was in on 12 of Nebraska’s 17 blocks, a new career-high topping the 10 she recorded in the regular season finale at Minnesota.
“Bekka is a huge piece of our defense day in and day out, game in and game out, and so I think for her to be in that position and for her to play as well she did tonight, it was really, really special,” Beason said. “She almost was crying like three points before the game was over. She just wants it so bad and so I was very, very happy for her.”
The Huskers hit .194 and held the Razorbacks to .100 despite Arkansas taking 35 more swings. Nebraska was plus-16 in digs and plus-eight in blocks to offset Arkansas’ eight to one edge in aces.
Things didn’t look good early as the Razorbacks thoroughly out-played Nebraska for much of the first set. Arkansas lived in system and had a lot of success tooling the Nebraska block. Arkansas led by as much as six at one point and held a 21-16 edge late before the Huskers turned the set around. At that point, Nebraska called a timeout to talk things over.
“We just told each other that we do it every day in practice,” Beason said. “We play games like that most days in practice to kind of put us in that situation and so we’ve done that a lot this season … So just reminding ourselves that we can and try not to let the doubt and the outside factors and the ‘oh shoot’ moments kind of slip into our mind and just reminding ourselves that we literally do it all the time. Like Coach said, winning the deuce games is what’s been really important for us this year and we’ve done that a few times.”
Out of the break, Murray triggered a 4-0 run with back-to-back kills and a block assist to pull within one. After trading sideouts, Beason took over and closed the game on a personal 4-1 run with two kills and two block assists to complete the comeback.
“She does that and then she calms everybody down, and she just has a gift with that,” Cook said of Beason. “I could never do that. If I was playing I would be in somebody’s face. She just has a gift of making people feel comfortable and understanding what to say, when to say it and how our team’s doing and when to slow the huddle down and when to bring them together and when to pump somebody up. She just has a gift. She’s a tremendous leader.”
Nebraska only hit .194 in the set but held Arkansas to .156 with three of the Huskers’ five blocks in the last 11 rallies.
The Huskers carried their momentum into the second set and dominated from start to finish. Nebraska opened up a 9-2 lead before Arkansas’ first kill and never looked back.
The Cornhuskers hit .302 and held the Razorbacks to .025 with four more blocks and 22 digs. Beason led the way with six kills and two blocks while Jackson added five kills on six swings.
The third set has been Nebraska’s toughest for much of the season, and certainly throughout the postseason. The Huskers finally ran into a team good enough to take advantage of that in the fourth round of the tournament.
The third set included 11 ties and five lead changes (more than double the first two sets combined), but Arkansas made two key runs to steal the set. The Razorbacks used a 4-0 run out of the media timeout to take an 18-15 lead. The Huskers cut the deficit to one twice, but Arkansas answered the second time with a 3-0 run to earn set point at 24-20 before a service error. The Razorbacks closed it out with a kill on the next point.
Nebraska hit .147 to Arkansas’ .222 in the third set as Taylor Head went off for eight kills on .500 hitting by herself.
The fourth set saw some big swings as well as Nebraska went from up 14-10 to down 19-17, triggering a timeout from Cook. The Huskers regrouped and tied it up again with kills from Ally Batenhorst and Beason. Two more ties followed before Nebraska took control, surging ahead and earning match point with a 3-0 run including two block assists from Allick.
Arkansas saved two match points with a kill and a block, but Jada Lawson hit long on her second serve to end the match.
“You could feel the pressure there,” Reilly said of the fourth set. “It felt like every point was worth a lot more points than it actually was. But like Merritt said, we kind of just leaned into each other. We have done harder drills than just playing a game in practice. We’re always down in our drills in practice and we have to do something special to get a point, and so we just kind of reminded ourselves of that and just trusted our training and fell back on that.”
Nebraska only hit .119 in the set but won with defense, holding the Razorbacks to .000 with four blocks and 24 digs. Murray stepped up with six kills and six digs while Beason added five of each.
“I told them that I’m really proud of them,” Cook said. “Really proud of Merritt and Lexi. Merritt is leading four freshmen. We have no seniors. Same with Lexi. It is wild, to put it mildly. These guys are talented. I’m just really, really proud of them. I’m having a hard time putting it into words. It will come to me at some point, but they’ve done an amazing job. We’ve won a lot of close matches and I told them it’s the connections and the relationships they have with each other that is what allows teams to be able to do that.”
With the win, Nebraska advances to the national semifinals in Tampa, Florida, and will face fellow No. 1 seed Pittsburgh. The Panthers pulled off a reverse sweep to down No. 2 Louisville in the first match of the day Saturday behind 18 kills on .378 hitting and 11 digs from Torrey Stafford.
Nebraska and Pitt faced off in the semifinals the last time Nebraska made the Final Four as well. The Huskers beat the Panthers 3-1 in Columbus before falling in five to Wisconsin in the championship.
“I’ll soak it up tonight and think about, but then it all kicks back in tomorrow. We’ve got to start preparing and we’ve got, really, two and a half practices before we play Thursday. It’s not like we can go in and start training hard this week. We’ve got got to recover, they’ve got finals going, so it’s a delicate balance right now of trying to get better, keep them fresh, and then deal with finals and travel.”
No. 1 Wisconsin and No. 2 Texas also earned a trip to the Final Four with 3-1 wins over No. 2 Oregon and No. 1 Stanford, respectively.
Nebraska will take on Pitt at 6 p.m. CT Thursday with Wisconsin and Texas to follow. The national championship is set for 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 17.