MINNEAPOLIS — Nebraska battled back from a 0-2 deficit to take down Illinois in five on Thursday night, punching their ticket to the national championship game for the third time in the last four years.
So much happened in that match that we couldn’t get to it all in our recap. Here’s a notebook with everything else that came out of Thursday’s thriller.
>> As soon as Mikaela Foecke’s match-sealing kill hit the ground the bench ran onto the court and swarmed the other Huskers in celebration. Nicklin Hames, who witnessed Nebraska’s run through the Final Four in Kansas City last year but was not yet part of it as a high school senior. describe her emotions in that moment.
“Unreal feeling,” Hames said. “I was here last year, I watched the semifinal match, I watched the final match. To be in that moment and hear the crowd cheer was just unreal.”
>> After the match, former Nebraska coach Terry Pettit took to Twitter and called it a “program win” for Nebraska.
That was a program win. Nebraska hung around until Illinois felt the pressure. Hames got more comfortable. Quade fatigued. Sun made some good decisions and Foecke was Foecke. Tradition and conditioning get the assists.
— Terry Pettit (@TerryPettit1) December 14, 2018
Jordyn Poulter, Illinois’ senior setter, credited Nebraska’s experience on the big stage. Seniors Kenzie Maloney and Mikaela Foecke have made it to the Final Four each of the last four years while sophomores Lauren Stivrins, Jazz Sweet and Hayley Desnberger were part of last year’s title team as well.
“Yeah, I mean, I think it's hard when we've never been in such a high-pressure situation before,” Poulter said. “The lights get a little bigger. I think we did a good job of moving on from the next point. I think it ultimately came down to our execution in those moments. I think the experience that Nebraska has had, their senior leadership, being in these moments, having been to the Final Four, this is their fourth time, Kenzie and Mikaela, I think that ultimately made a difference. The margin is so thin.”
Illinois coach Chris Tamas, who spent two seasons on John Cook’s staff at Nebraska and helped lead the Huskers to the 2015 national championship, broke down how the match played out.
“We knew they weren't going to go away,” Tamas said. “You don't make it to four straight Final Fours by chance. They had one of the best outside hitters in the country with Mikaela. We knew they were going to ride her. We knew they're not going down without a fight.
“Again, just part of being in our conference, especially knowing her and Kenzie and coaching Lauren. They’re a force out there. It's just difficult. You have to execute really well over the course of a match. They came back. We talk a lot about the serve and pass game.
“You saw that in full force, full effect tonight, where I thought we had a good beat on them the first couple sets, but they came back and got some matchups that maybe they wanted, were able to pick apart some of our serve-receive, which has been a real strength for us all year.
“They're a good defensive team. I think they're a top defensive team in our conference. Just makes it difficult to score points. It can get frustrating. I don’t think we ever got frustrated. I just think we didn't get a couple swings we wanted to at certain times. You can’t force a swing if it's not there.
“We talked about putting ourselves in positions to make great choices. I thought we put ourselves in a lot of great positions tonight. I thought Nebraska made a lot of great plays. Both sides made a lot of great plays. You saw a good match because of it.”
>> Nebraska managed to win the match despite losing the blocking battle as Illinois held a 9.5 to four edge in that category.
“I was looking at the stats, our block stats,” Cook said. “We take a lot of pride in blocking. It's been a strength. We led the Big Ten in blocking. But Illinois does a great job. Poulter is a great setter, one of the best I've ever seen. She puts those hitters in such great positions, they're hard to block, hit high off our hands.
“I’ve got to look at the tape why. But, you know, we still out-dug them by one. You know, when you get to this point, you got to win close games in big points at the end of games. That's what this team has been doing a great job of the last five weeks, six weeks. Sometimes it's not stuff blocks, you get a touch and control it. I thought we did an okay job of that. Illinois covers really well. I mean, we blocked some balls down. I don't know how they got them up. They cover great.”
The Huskers, the top defensive team in the country who had held their opponents to .136 hitting heading into the match, gave up .237 to the Illini but still managed to get the job done.
>> Nebraska has plenty of high-profile hitters on its team with senior star Mikaela Foecke, dynamic sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun and Stivrins, an emerging force in the middle, but with game five tied at 10-10, it was true freshman reserve Capri Davis who the Huskers turned to for a go-ahead kill.
Out of a timeout, freshman Nicklin Hames set up her classmate for a swing, but Illinois dug it. Nebraska got the ball back and Hames went right back to Davis who smashed a kill right up the left sideline.
“I trust her with everything,” Hames said. “I would set her that ball again; I wouldn’t take it back at all because I know she’s going to go up there and she’s going to take a big swing. She’s been doing it all season when she comes in. I knew she was going to get a kill when I set her and a perfect down-the-line kill.”
Davis finished with four kills and two errors on 11 swings in her single-rotation role. Cook called her contributions “huge.”
“That rotation was giving us problems because we got matched up with Poulter serving into it,” Cook said. “She gave us fits. That's one of the reasons we got blown out in game two. We rotated so we couldn't get Poulter serving into our rotation. She's got to get kills. They're all over Lexi in that rotation. If we set her the ball, she's got to kill it. It was a rally we got in. She got a huge kill. She's been doing a good job for us.”
Davis isn’t always accurate with her swings (both of her errors were shots hit wide) but she’s not afraid to let it rip, something Cook encourages in all of his hitters.
“We talked about just going out there and taking risks, hitting like dudes — Coach preaches that every single day,” Stivrins said. “You’re not going to win a point by tipping, everyone expects that. So we just went up there with confidence. Capri coming in clutch with that high line shot. It’s just something we train every day, just going out there.”
>> Sun had an up-and-down match for the Huskers. She tied for team-high honors with 19 kills, but it came on .196 hitting thanks to eight attack errors. She had a ball-handling error, a service receive error and a service error, though she also had two aces and 12 digs. Sun wasn’t a Husker when Tamas was in Lincoln, but he’s very familiar with her game.
“We had a good beat on her early on,” Tamas said. “Forced her into some things we didn't want her to do. I've seen Lexi play since she was in eighth grade, knew she was a good player. Not a surprise she had the night that she did. I felt like we had her blocked, good setups. She's a phenomenal athlete, able to go over the block, go around us. She was hitting shots she wanted as the match went on. Felt we could have dug her a little bit more a few times. She was hitting really good spots. Any hitter that can do that, mix around their shots like she did, makes it difficult to get a beat on what they’re doing. That was the difficulty in stopping her tonight.”
>> A big part of Illinois jumping out to the 2-0 lead and having a shot to close out the match in three was a breakdown in passing by the Huskers. That was an area of the game that gave the Huskers problems earlier int he season, but they seemed to get it figured out during the stretch run.
It popped up again on Thursday, and Maloney said communication was the problem.
“I think that’s really all it was,” Maloney said. “We were a little bit hesitant in the beginning, maybe due to nerves or something like that. But I think in set three, all of our nerves were finally gone and so we were just flowing a little better on serve-receive.”
>> Freshman defensive specialist Megan Miller has had a rollercoaster ride of a first season in Lincoln. Early in the year, she was playing in every set. When Sun was cleared to play and joined the rotation at the end of nonconference play, Miller fell further down on the depth chart because Sun played all six rotations. Miller even logged seven DNPs.
But she worked her way back onto the court and played a big role during the stretch run, finishing with 19 digs — one shy of her season high — and an ace.
“It’s crazy how much Megan has improved since the beginning of the season,” Maloney said. “I don’t think she’s afraid of anything, honestly. She gets aces in huge moments when we need her to and she digs everything, she’s timing balls. I think she’s a stud. I love playing next to her because she gives me confidence.”
>> In 2016, Illinois finished 17-14 and 10-10 in the Big Ten. The Illini had a talented young roster, but coach Kevin Hambly left to take the Stanford job and Illinois hired Tamas away from Nebraska.
In Tamas’ first year, the Illini went 23-11 (12-8 in the Big Ten) and made it to the Sweet 16. The loss to Nebraska ended Illinois’ most successful season since 2011 at 32-4.
“I'm not surprised,” Cook said. “I picked him to finish second in the conference this year behind Minnesota. He's got three great players in Poulter, [Jacqueline] Quade and [Ali] Bastianelli. We've been playing Poulter and Bastianelli for four years now. They're great players. He's built a really nice team around them. Quade, she's as good as any player I've seen all year long. He's done a fantastic job. He's got a great staff. He's got Jen [Tamas] as his secret weapon.
“It's kind of a bittersweet match. I'm glad we won, but it was an honor to play them. It represented the Big Ten really well, represented both programs really well. We're going to continue to have battles like this because he's a very good coach. I didn't want to lose him.”