The third time wasn’t the charm for the Huskers as the fourth-seed Wisconsin Badgers swept fifth-seeded Nebraska again on Saturday evening, ending the Huskers’ season in the regional finals.
Nebraska made too many mistakes, especially late in games, to hang with the Badgers as Wisconsin (26-6) beat Nebraska (28-5) 25-18, 25-22, 25-19 at the Wisconsin Field House.
“I thought it was a really great match,” Coach John Cook said. “Our team did a great job of defending Wisconsin; we were much improved in that area. But they had the home crowd, they made some big plays when they needed to and they played great. They've proven to us that they were the best team in the Big Ten this year. So we wish them the best in the Final Four. I asked my team to come in here and compete and to play with courage and I couldn't be more proud of the effort they gave tonight.”
Nebraska played strong defense for most of the match as the Badgers hit a season-low .187 after hitting over .300 in the previous two matches. Nebraska held Big Ten Player of the Year and All-American middle blocker Dana Rettke to seven kills on .174 hitting, but outside hitter Molly Haggerty picked up the slack with a match-high 13 kills on .250 hitting.
“We prepared really well,” Cook said. “We figured out some things the first two times we played them because we weren’t very good against them. Our players did an A-plus job of following the game plan and staying with it and we had plenty of opportunities to convert points.”
The Huskers hit a season-low .062 (the lowest figure during John Cook’s tenure) with 27 attack errors. It’s the first time Nebraska has hit below .100 in the postseason under Cook. Wisconsin out-blocked Nebraska 11 to three and served up five aces to just one for the Huskers.
Junior outside hitter Jazz Sweet got off to a blistering start but the Badgers figured her out as the match went on. Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun started slow, picked it up in the middle then struggled late. None of the other Husker hitters every really got it going.
Sweet had 11 kills on .167 hitting. Sun had 11 kills on .023 hitting and 11 digs. Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik finished strong in the third set but still only finished with seven kills on .033 hitting and 12 digs. Wisconsin held junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins to three kills and three errors on 12 attempts.
“You’ve got to give Wisconsin credit; they made some great digs and when teams are digging you and pressuring you, you try a little bit harder … Sometimes you try too hard, but again, Wisconsin deserves a lot of credit, where they had their block and they’re very good at digging and transitioning which just makes you try harder to kill the ball when you’re not killing it,” Cook said. “We took some great swings tonight and we decided we were going to be aggressive and attack. Some of that is you might make some more errors.”
Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles led the defensive effort with a match-high 22 digs. Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames had 26 assists and six digs.
A 3-0 Nebraska run gave the Huskers an early 5-3 lead, but Wisconsin quickly tied it up and then used a 6-0 run served by Big Ten Setter of the Year Sydney Hilley to pull ahead 11-6. Hilley served two aces during that run. Wisconsin got another ace to make it 13-7 before the Huskers scored five of the next six points to cut the deficit to two.
That’s as close as Nebraska got, however, as the Badgers used a 5-1 run of their own to take their biggest lead of the set at 22-15 and they cruised to the finish from there.
Wisconsin served five aces in total during the first set as the Huskers had all kinds of trouble passing. Sweet had five kills on 10 swings and had a lot of success tooling Wisconsin’s block.
“Definitely just trusting my training,” Sweet said. “[Tooling] is something we train every day and that was definitely something that was part of our game plan going into playing Wisconsin, because it’s a really big block so you’ve got to go high. I was just definitely trusting in the plan that the coaches had set for us.”
However, the rest of the Huskers combined to produce five kills and seven errors on 30 attempts as Nebraska hit .075 overall. Wisconsin hit .150 with its two left sides combining for 10 of its 12 kills; Rettke didn’t record a kill in the first set.
Nebraska won three of the first four rallies in the second set but Wisconsin tied it up again at 5-5. Kubik put the Huskers back in front with a kill and then an ace, Nebraska’s first of the season against the Badgers in three meetings, and Nebraska pushed the lead to three at 10-7 with a kill by Sun.
Wisconsin ripped off three straight after that to tie it up, however. After trading sideouts, Sweet put together a 4-0 run almost by herself with a kill, two block assists alongside Stivrins and another kill to make it 15-11.
After trading points, Wisconsin used a 5-1 run to tie it up at 17-all. Wisconsin took its first lead of the set at 20-19 after blocking Sweet, marking her first error of the match. Nebraska scored two in a row but then made two straight errors to give Wisconsin the lead back at 22-21. After a timeout, Kubik terminated to tie it up but Nebraska proceeded to misfire three straight times to give Wisconsin the set.
The Badgers hit .289 in the game behind six kills from Haggerty. Nebraska hit .150 with eight attack errors, five of which were unforced. Sweet had six more kills for Nebraska and Sun tacked on five to her tally in game two. Nebraska didn’t give up any aces in that set but still couldn’t get the win.
Wisconsin jumped out to a 3-1 lead in set three but Nebraska tied it up a couple of times then took its first lead at 5-4 on a Kubik kill. The teams traded sideouts until a block by the Badgers gave them a 9-8 lead, but Wisconsin served long to tie it up. They traded points again until a setter dump by Hilley and an errant attack by Sweet gave the Badgers a two-point lead.
Wisconsin pushed the lead to 14-11 and drew a timeout from Nebraska as the Huskers hit zero with six attack errors through the first 25 rallies. Nebraska cut it to one twice before back-to-back Wisconsin points made it 18-15 Wisconsin. The Huskers put together three straight after that—two kills from Sun and a double-block from sophomores Callie Schwarzenbach and Anezka Szabo, in for the double-substitution.
After a Wisconsin timeout, the Badgers pulled ahead with two straight before Rettke misfired. That was the last mistake the All-American made, though. The Badgers closed out the match with a 5-0 run including three blocks (one solo) and a kill by Rettke.
The Huskers hit minus-.040 thanks to 12 attack errors in the third set. Sweet had three errors on seven swings. Sun had four kills and eight errors. Wisconsin only had 11 kills on .149 hitting, but that was more than enough.
Nebraska falls short of the Final Four for the first time since 2014. The Badgers will take on top-seeded Baylor in Pittsburgh on Thursday with a berth to the National Championship on the line.
The senior-less Huskers will head into the offseason with an eye on making another run in 2020.
“If you look at our team as a group, we’re getting better in these matches and growing from it,” Cook said. “This whole group returns. I put a football field up on the white board and said ‘OK, now we’re at the 50-yard line, and here we go. We’ve got another year and the goal is to get to Omaha.’ I just think we’ll learn from this.”
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.