The last time Nebraska stepped on the Devaney Center floor in front of a sold-out crowd, the Huskers got swept off it by a Wisconsin team that hit a blistering .376.
The fifth-ranked Huskers got five days to themselves to work on their craft before their next match, and Coach John Cook said he pushed them hard. They responded with one of their better defensive performances of the season in a 3-1 win over Michigan State on Friday.
“I feel like we were able to kind of just take a step back and really get to work at practice this week,” junior outside hitter Lexi Sun said. “I think the break was good for us. I feel like the Wisconsin match was kind of a long time ago, but we were excited to get back out here and get a win under our belts for sure.”
Nebraska (12-2, 4-1) rallied from a first-set loss to beat the Spartans (11-4, 2-3) in four, 21-25, 25-15, 25-14, 25-22 in front of a crowd of 8,129 at the Devaney Center.
“I thought we would come out really firing on all cylinders tonight, and we were a little bit out of whack and tentative and not very sure,” Cook said. “We had a great week of practice, but after game one I told them that they were going to have to take the momentum back and they came out and made a big run right there with Nicklin [Hames] serving. I thought we played some really good volleyball for games two and three and then game four was great. We won some big rallies, Michigan State made some nice plays there to stay in it and we finished it off at the end. It’s a good win for the Huskers. We did some really good things tonight and we’ve got to continue to clean up some things.”
Michigan State was the top defensive team in the Big Ten from a statistical standpoint heading into the match and the Spartans did snap Nebraska’s streak of three straight matches hitting over .300, holding them to .196. However, the Blackshorts stole the show, holding Michigan State to a season-low .038 hitting.
“I think our legs were a little bit fresher tonight and we just were sharp,” Cook said. “We were on the game plan and we did a nice job. Held a Big Ten team to .038, so that’s pretty nice. They’ve got a lot of physical hitters so I thought we did a really good job of following the game plan and shutting them down. Defense won it for us tonight.”
Nebraska out-blocked the top blocking team in the conference 14 to nine, setting a new season high.
“I think we were getting a lot of good touches on the block and I think that our defenders were all in great positions as well,” junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said. “I just think that the effort was there tonight and we just didn’t give up.”
Junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet led the Huskers with 16 kills on .211 hitting and five blocks. Sun added 13 kills on .214 hitting and 10 digs. Stivrins finished with 13 kills on 18 swings (.667 hitting), six blocks and an ace.
“She did a nice job tonight,” Cook said about Stivrins. “She missed a few plays in game one that I reminded her of. She’s got to play at a really high level for us. When you have a middle that can do all those things and get kills for you, it really helps and it really helps open other things up. We knew we had good match-ups for her tonight and we were trying to get her as many balls as we could. I think Nicklin could have set her more at a few opportunities.”
Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles finished with a match-high 21 digs and Hames, the sophomore setter, added 46 assists and 14 digs.
Nebraska got off to a slow start, allowing Michigan State to take an early lead, but after pulling even at 7-7 and 8-8, Nebraska used a 6-0 run to take the lead for the first time, pulling ahead 15-10. Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik was responsible for half of that run herself with three kills.
Michigan State scored four of the next five points to cut the deficit to two and it bounced back and forth from there until Michigan State managed to re-take the lead 21-20 with a 4-0 run. A service error ended the run, but Michigan State closed the set with another 4-0 spurt to take a 1-0 lead.
Nebraska hit .125 in the first set thanks in large part to eight attack errors. The Spartans hit .200 with junior outside hitter Meredith Norris recording six of their 12 kills. Sun led the Huskers with four kills.
The Huskers got off to a much better start in the second set as Hames served a 6-0 run to open play before misfiring on her seventh serve. Nebraska stretched its lead to seven at 9-2 before a 3-0 Spartan run. Michigan State pulled within three a couple of times, but Nebraska ended the set on a 7-0 run featuring a pair of kills by Stivrins, four errors by Michigan State and an ace by Kubik to close it out.
Nebraska hit .333 in the second set, cutting its errors in half, and held the Spartans to -.097. Sun and Stivrins had three kills apiece while Nebraska held Norris to four errors and no kills on nine attempts in the second set.
Michigan State took an early lead again in the third set before Stivrins took over, recording two kills, a solo block and a block assist during a 5-0 run that put Nebraska up 9-5. Michigan State pulled within two at 10-8, but the rest of the set was all Nebraska.
The Huskers used a 12-3 run to double up the Spartans at 22-11 and cruised to the win from there to take a 2-1 lead in the match. Freshman setter Nicole Drewnick subbed in on set point and served up her first career ace to end it.
Stivrins and Sweet dominated the set, combining for 10 kills and five blocks. Nebraska hit .270 and held Michigan State to .051.
The fourth set went back and forth early with six different ties before Nebraska pulled ahead 10-9 on the longest rally of the night thanks to a double-block from Sun and freshman middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach.
We got tired just watching this. 🥵
— Husker Volleyball (@Huskervball) October 12, 2019
“I definitely think that tonight we worked really hard out there, we fought for every point and we were able to win points like that,” Sun said. “There were a few long rallies that we were going back and forth with and I think because we kept working and fighting, we were able to win those rallies. That was good because it gave us a lot of momentum.”
That play sparked a 6-1 run by the Huskers to make it 15-10 at the fourth-set media timeout.
Michigan State put together a 3-0 run when play resumed, but three straight errors by the Spartans pushed the lead back to five. Michigan State kept battling, cutting it down to two a couple of times late, but Sweet ended it with a kill on Nebraska’s second match-point chance.
Nebraska recorded five blocks in the fourth set and held Michigan State to .000 hitting. Sweet had five kills to lead the Huskers, who hit .114.
Nebraska will get Saturday off before returning to the Devaney Center on Sunday for an afternoon match with Michigan. First serve is set for 1 p.m. on ESPN2.
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.