No. 11 Nebraska put together one of its best sets of the season at No. 5 Wisconsin, but the Huskers couldn’t sustain the effort as the Badgers took the next three sets to claim at least a share of the Big Ten title.
Wisconsin (24-3, 16-3 Big Ten) broke a tie with the Huskers (21-7, 15-4) atop the conference standings with a 14-25, 25-23, 26-24, 25-18 win in Madison on Friday night behind a monster performance from All-American middle blocker Dana Rettke.
“I thought it was a great match,” Coach John Cook said during his post-match radio interview. “We had our chances to win it; we could have won it 3-0. I’m really proud of our team, how hard we competed tonight, how hard we played. You’ve got to give Wisconsin a lot of credit. They made some great plays. Rettke made huge plays when they needed it and they made some great serves when they needed it and they made great digs and covers when they needed it. They were just a couple plays better than us. Otherwise I thought it was a tremendous effort on our side and our team really competed tonight.”
After a nearly flawless first set, Nebraska hit below .140 in each of the last three games to finish at .168 overall. Wisconsin recorded blocks on 14 of Nebraska 25 attack errors. The Badgers hit .225.
Madi Kubik led the Huskers with 15 kills but hit just .159 and she was the only Huskers in double figures. Lauren Stivrins added nine kills on .429 hitting and four blocks as the Huskers had 10 stuffs as a team.
After providing a spark off the bench against Penn State, Whitney Lauenstein got the start at opposite hitter but finished with six kills and five errors, hitting .038. Lexi Sun started the match with three kills on four swings in the first set but had just four kills and seven errors the rest of the way. Kenzie Knuckles was Nebraska’s second-most effective hitter with four kills on .375 hitting.
“[Lauenstein] started off great, and then I don’t know if she had a kill the last two-and-a-half games,” Cook said. “We’ve got to get more production there, six kills on 26 attempts isn’t getting it done. We’ve got to have more firepower. We had one player in double-digit kills, Madi, and she hit .159. So 44 sets, .159, so not going to be a great hitting percentage. We’ve got to find ways for other people to get kills.”
Nebraska put forth one of its best serving efforts of the season with 10 aces and six errors. Keonilei Akana had five of those aces herself while Knuckles chipped in two.
“We’re a great serving team and we knew we had to unleash it tonight and they did a great job,” Cook said. “Of course, Akana got five of those, but I thought we did a really nice job serving tonight. Game two, we made a couple of critical errors right at the end there that really hurt us. You just can’t give life when you’ve got them down on the road at Wisconsin.”
The Huskers held the 6-foot-8 Rettke mostly in check during their previous meeting, but she went off on Friday with 18 kills on .484 hitting and seven blocks. Grace Loberg added 14 kills on .250 hitting.
After feeling each other out early, Nebraska made the first big push with a 5-0 run served by Kenzie Knuckles. The Badgers cut the deficit down to three a couple of times, but Nebraska extended it to six at 17-11.
The Huskers’ first attack error of the match didn’t come until its 33rd rally as the Badgers managed to block Kubik, but the Huskers responded with a 6-0 run to close out the set that included three aces by Akana.
Nebraska hit .520 with just one attack error in the first set, though a stat update incorrectly credited Kayla Caffey with an error to drop the percentage to .462. Kubik and Lauenstein scored four kills apiece.
Wisconsin hit .308, but the Huskers had a 6-0 advantage in service points including four aces.
The teams traded blows throughout the second set. Nebraska raced out to a 4-2 lead, Wisconsin answered with four straight, Nebraska tied it up twice then the Huskers surged ahead with three straight points from Caffey (a kill and two block assists).
Alternating 3-0 runs tied it up then gave the Huskers the lead again and they held on to the advantage until back-to-back Badger kills tied it up at 19-19. After a Caffey kill, Wisconsin pushed ahead with a 3-0 run including back-to-back Nebraska attack errors.
Nebraska tied it at 22-22 after a kill from Knuckles, but a Husker serve into the net on the next point sparked a 3-1 finish for the Badgers to tie the match up at one set apiece.
After a clean first set, the Huskers hit .111 in the second thanks to eight attack errors. Wisconsin hit .167.
The Badgers came out firing to start set three, converting five of their first six swings into kills as they raced out to an 8-3 lead. The Huskers slowly started to chip away at the deficit as the set went on, using a 3-0 run to pull within one at 12-11, then using another 3-0 run to pull ahead 15-14.
After four more ties, Wisconsin pulled ahead 20-18 on back-to-back Nebraska errors, and the Badgers then pushed the lead to three at 23-20. Nebraska rallied to tie it once again, however, with a 4-1 run that included a pair of kills from Knuckles, one of which was a flat-footed, back-row swing. Kelly Sheffield called timeout to regroup at that point, and the Badgers went to their go-to attackers out of the break to finish it off as Rettke and Loberg delivered kills on the next two rallies.
Wisconsin out-hit Nebraska .256 to .136. Kubik added four more kills but they came with two more errors to give her 12 and six, respectively.
Wisconsin opened the fourth set with a 5-1 run including a block, an ace and a Nebraska attack error. The Badgers pushed the lead to six at 10-4 with a 4-0 run including three Rettke kills.
The Huskers cut their deficit to two five different times but couldn’t find a way to get over the hump as the Badgers finally used an 8-1 run to earn match point and a big cushion. Nebraska made Wisconsin work for that final point, scoring three in a row to force a timeout, but the Badgers went to Rettke out of the break and she closed it out.
Wisconsin hit .200 and held Nebraska to .059 in the final set. Rettke had eight kills on 14 swings.
The Badgers extended their winning streak against Nebraska to seven, though the Huskers snapped their streak of consecutive sweeps at four. Wisconsin clinches the outright title with a win over Indiana on Saturday.The Badgers have won the Big Ten in each of the last three seasons.
Nebraska doesn’t have long to dwell on the missed opportunity. The Huskers have one more match remaining in the regular season and it’s against another top-10 team in No. 7 Purdue (23-5, 15-4) on Saturday night.
“It’s going to be tough,” Cook said. “We’ll see how deep we want to dig. But this is good experience for us … We went for it tonight, that’s what was important. Tomorrow, I’m not sure that match will impact where we finish and for the NCAA tournament, but we got to learn how to compete back-to-back. We’re going to have to do it next week in the NCAA Tournament. We’re going to have to rally up and these guys are going to have to dig down and we’ve been mentally preparing them for this weekend for a couple of weeks now.”
This will be Nebraska’s first back-to-back since the second week of the season when the Huskers hosted the Ameritas Players Challenge. First serve from West Lafayette is set for 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.