No. 1 Nebraska held leads late in sets one and two in the rematch with No. 5 Wisconsin on Friday, but the Huskers couldn’t close them out and thus took their first loss of the season in its final week.
The Badgers swept Big Ten champion Nebraska 25-22, 28-26, 25-16 in a packed UW Field House, dropping the Huskers to 27-1 and 18-1 in league play with one match to go before the NCAA Tournament selection show on Sunday.
“It was really great crowd tonight,” Coach John Cook said during his post-match radio interview. “I thought there was some really high-level volleyball by both teams. The difference was we had shots to win games one and two and couldn’t close them out. So that’s the lesson learned. As I told our team, we’re Big Ten champs because we’re eight points better than these guys, at Purdue and at Penn State and at our place. Tonight, they were a couple points better.”
Wisconsin (25-3, 16-3) hit a blistering .357 as Nebraska was credited with as many blocking errors as blocks (three). Anna Smrek, the 6-foot-9 opposite who missed both of Wisconsin’s recent losses with an injury, put up a match-high 18 kills on .378 hitting while star outside hitter Sarah Franklin added 16 kills on .424 hitting and 12 digs.
“I think this was a great learning match, especially for our freshmen, what the level we’re going to have to go to right now,” Cook said. “They saw what happens, how important every point is. We broke down passing, we were passing the ball low and all over the place. You can’t give these guys free balls. That’s the takeaway that they’ve got to learn from tonight and I just thought our blocking got undisciplined just because Smrek went over a couple of times, Franklin was hitting some nice shots and we just started chasing all over the place.
“So it’s a great teaching and learning match for us. Wisconsin played great tonight. But we hit 100 points higher than we did in Lincoln, so I thought we played some really good volleyball tonight and had a chance to win games one and two.”
Harper Murray led Nebraska with 15 kills on .257 hitting and eight digs. Ally Batenhorst had one of her best showings of the season with 11 kills on .409 hitting.
“Ally had a great week of practice,” Cook said. “We’ve been working on shots with her and seeing the block better in her approach and she did really well tonight. It was really fun to see her attack that well. She got some big kills and she competed tonight.”
Merritt Beason cooled off after a hot start to finish with 11 kills on .226 hitting. The middle blockers combined for just seven kills and five errors on 17 attacks. Bergen Reilly finished with 32 assists and a team-high 10 digs as Nebraska hit .243 overall.
Cook said he was happy with his team’s serving for the most part (three aces and three errors compared to five of each for Wisconsin) but the Badgers did a better job of managing when things weren’t perfect and bettering the ball.
“We had them in trouble a lot,” Cook said. “The difference was Franklin bailed them out. Harper was bailing us out when we didn’t pass, but the difference is they get it high and miss so they get a nice set. Bergen’s bump-setting. Harper had some big swings tonight, Ally had some huge swings tonight out of system. We’ve got to get better out of system, but it’s hard to get a good set when you pass the ball four feet high, and that’s what was happening to us. We were just falling back, passing the ball low. They were going after Harper and Laney [Choboy] tonight and those guys have got to be better. You’ve got to miss better.
“It’s just like that six-foot putt, you can’t leave it short. We were leaving them short tonight.”
Nebraska got off to a great start, winning five of the first six rallies before Wisconsin settled in. The Badgers cut the Husker lead to one four different times, but Nebraska responded to each push.
The fifth surge proved too much, however, as Wisconsin used a 9-2 run to jump in front and earn set point at 24-20. Nebraska saved two set points before Franklin finished it off with her eighth kill of the set.
Nebraska out-hit Wisconsin .290 to .270, but the Badgers had four more kills and out-aced Nebraska 2-0. Beason led Nebraska with 5 kills on nine errorless swings.
The teams traded small runs early in set two before Nebraska took control and played from ahead for much of the set. Wisconsin jumped ahead again at 19-17 with four straight points, but Nebraska responded with a 5-0 run served by Maisie Boesiger which included the team’s first ace as well as three kills and a block from Murray.
However, the Huskers couldn’t close it out once again. Wisconsin scored four in a row again including a pair of Nebraska net violations to take a 23-22 lead. Murray tied it before Franklin answered with her own kill to give Wisconsin set point. Murray flipped it around with a kill and an ace to give Nebraska game point, but Smrek terminated to tie it again.
Batenhorst joined the party to give Nebraska its second set point, but Franklin answered and then Nebraska wasted a free ball with an errant attack from Beason to give Wisconsin game point and Carter Booth closed it out.
Wisconsin edged Nebraska in hitting, .283 to .271. Murray went off for nine kills on 15 swings while Batenhorst added seven kills on 11 attacks, but Smrek countered with seven kills for Wisconsin.
The third set was close early with seven ties and three lead changes in the first 14 rallies, but Wisconsin dominated the rest of the way. The Badgers created a bit of separation with a 4-1 run then blew the game open with a 6-0 surge.
Cook subbed Maggie Mendelson in at the tail end of the run and the sophomore notched a kill to end it, but the teams traded points the rest of the way as Wisconsin completed the sweep.
Wisconsin’s first and only attack error of the set came on the team’s 22nd swing as the Badgers hit .593 behind six more kills from Smrek. Beason and Murray had four kills apiece as Nebraska hit .200.
Nebraska will look to bounce back in the regular season finale on Saturday night as the Huskers head to Minneapolis for a rematch with Minnesota (16-11, 12-7). The Huskers swept the Golden Gophers in Lincoln during the first week of Big Ten play.
“We want to be playing well this time of year,” Cook said. “We’re going to have another great effort tomorrow night. We’ve got to clean some things up. I’ll be curious how we respond; we haven’t gone through this. What other team went 27-0 this year? I don’t think we were feeling pressure tonight, I think we competed hard. We just didn’t execute at the level we needed to to beat the Wisconsin team the way they were playing tonight.”
First serve Saturday night is set for 8 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.