TAMPA, Fla. — Nebraska earned its first semifinal sweep since 2005 on Thursday night, taking down Pittsburgh 3-0 to advance to Sunday’s national championship match.
The Huskers put on a blocking clinic and Harper Murray shined as Nebraska topped Pitt 25-20, 25-23, 25-17 in a battle of No. 1 seeds.
“I thought it was a great effort on our part,” Coach John Cook said. “Pittsburgh is a very good team. Just watching video on them, they had our respect. I thought this would be a really, really tough match, and I knew we’d have to play great to win. We talked about winning some close points. There was some ugly volleyball. We found a couple ways to win a couple points out of that, and I just thought our serving and blocking and defense really put some pressure on Pittsburgh.
“A lot of credit to them. They’ve had a great year. They’ve got a great team. They’re very well-coached. I love the system that they run. It’s a great effort for the Huskers.”
The Huskers out-blocked the second-best blocking team in the country 15 to eight, holding the nation’s third-best hitting team to .137. Four different Huskers recorded at least four blocks, but it was sophomore Bekka Allick who set the tone with 10 of them, including three solo. She added four kills on seven attacks.
“When you’re in-conference, you always think there is next weekend if you want to do better,” Allick said. “But you’re at a point right now where you’ve got to have the clutch factor and you have to make it happen. I’m just blessed. I can tell you right now there were tons of prayers before this game, just wanting to show up for my team because I’m aware of what I’ve done in previous games, and you always kind of wonder if you’re able to do it again. So just giving myself the grace to do that and for it to actually happen, I’m happy that I can do it with them and for them.”
Bergen Reilly dished out 31 assists while guiding Nebraska to a .245 hitting percentage against the second-best defensive team in the country. Harper Murray was her favorite target, finishing with a match-high 13 kills on .273 hitting.
Murray had struggled somewhat in the first four matches of her first NCAA Tournament, averaging 2.69 kills per set on .150 hitting. Those struggles ended on Thursday, however, as Murray came up big, especially on out-of-system attacks.
“We work on that in practice every day,” Murray said. “Lexi [Rodriguez] obviously gives me great sets, but we work on that every day in practice, so just trusting my training and I know my team has my back.”
Merritt Beason and Ally Batenhorst scored eight kills apiece whit Beason adding five blocks and four aces. Lexi Rodriguez posted a match-high 14 digs and also served an ace.
Official attendance for both national semifinals at Amalie Arena on Thursday was 19,598, setting a new indoor record for Division I women’s volleyball, coming in second overall behind only Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium match against Omaha. Nebraska has been involved in each of the top 10 volleyball crowds in NCAA history, and Husker red filled the arena in Tampa. Allick said it felt a lot like the Devaney Center.
“Nebraska fans are no joke,” Allick said. “They’ll show out, whether we’re at Rutgers or California, Hawai’i, even Brazil I think we even had some fans. It was nice to be in an environment where you’re supported, you see family and friends. It was a lot like Bob.”
The teams seemed to feel each other out early in the match with seven ties and three lead changes in the first 18 rallies. Tied at 9-9, Nebraska created the first bit of separation with a 4-1 run. Pitt cut it to one, but the Huskers used another 4-1 run to extend the lead to four and they kept the Panthers at a distance the rest of the way.
Nebraska hit .157 and held Pitt to .000 with 13 errors. Murray and Beason led the way with four kills apiece. The Huskers had a tough time terminating against Pitt’s stout defense, but the Nebraska block picked up the slack with eight stuffs, including one on set point.
“What we always talk about is just using the scouting report,” Allick said. “Coaches work really hard on that, the boys work really hard on putting that together. So just the biggest thing as a blocker is trusting what they’ve taught us and taking away their tendencies. When the opponent gets stressed they’re going to try and hit their comfortable shot as hard as they can and usually that works out, so being able to take that away early on is something that pays off in the long run, and just staying disciplined and not trying to do too much.”
The Huskers made their move earlier in set two, using a 4-0 run including an ace from Beason to build a 10-5 lead. The Huskers extended that advantage out to six a couple of times before Pitt rallied. The Panthers cut to it to two twice, then ripped off three in a row after Nebraska earned set point at 24-20.
However, Valeria Vazquez Gomez served long to give Nebraska a 2-0 match lead. Murray led the Husker attack with five kills as Nebraska edged Pitt in hitting .211 to .205.
The third set was tight early with three ties in the first 12 rallies, but the Huskers took over soon after. Rodriguez capped a 5-0 run with an ace to give Nebraska a 15-9 lead. Chiamaka Nwokolo terminated to end the run, but the Huskers sided out with an Andi Jackson kill, then Beason served three straight aces (including an out-of-rotation call on Pitt) to put the Huskers up 19-10.
“I just kept encouraging them to keep the service pressure on them,” Cook said. “Sometimes when you get in a match like that, things aren’t going, you can get a little tentative, and I just kept reminding them. Pittsburgh is a great serving team as well, and I don’t know what our aces to errors were, but there was some really tough serving going on out there on both sides. We kept talking about we’ve got to keep serving them tough because they’ve got great hitters.”
Nebraska cruised to the finish from there, earning match point with a 10-point lead. Pitt extended the match a few extra points, but Allick closed it out with a net violation-aided kill as the Huskers dig-piled on the court. Dan Fisher challenged the call, but the officials confirmed the call quickly and Nebraska got to celebrate a second time.
The Huskers dominated the final frame, hitting .407 to Pitt’s .231 with four more blocks. Murray led the way again while the middles, Allick and Jackson, combined for six kills on seven swings after totaling just three kills in the first two sets.
Now Nebraska will get two days to prepare as the championship match is happening on Sunday for the first time.
“This is new, the extra day,” Cook said. “I’ve got to think about how we’re going to manage that. I really don’t know our schedule tomorrow yet. I just know the All-American banquet is in the morning and I’m supposed to be on some panel thing in the morning, which I’m going to bail on. We’ll do what we’ve done all year, but with the extra day here it’ll be interesting, and of course Sunday is historic.”
The Huskers will face former conference rival Texas in the final as the second-seeded Longhorns took out No. 1 Wisconsin 3-1 in the second semifinal. Texas wont the last two sets 25-13 and 25-16 to send the Badgers home.