Strong starts in each set led to a 3-0 sweep for No. 1 Nebraska against Tulsa on Friday night at the Ameritas Players Challenge.
The Cornhuskers (2-0) took down Golden Hurricane (0-2) 25-15, 25-12, 25-13 in their second match of the day at the Devaney Center.
As Coach John Cook promised after his team’s win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi earlier in the day, Nebraska started a different lineup featuring Anni Evans at setter in place of Kennedi Orr, Ally Batenhorst at outside hitter in place of Lindsay Krause and freshman Maggie Mendelson at middle blocker in place of Bekka Allick.
“I thought we picked it up a notch this afternoon, played a little bit cleaner, less errors,” Cook said. “We had three new players out there and I thought they did really well as a team and played with each other, for each other. That was a challenge. I don’t know if I’ve ever done that in my coaching career, basically putting in half a new lineup in a tournament like this. But I had a lot of confidence those guys would play really smooth and they did a nice job. It was fun to watch.”
Whitney Lauenstein started again at opposite hitter and picked up where she left off with a match-high 15 kills on .429 hitting and three blocks. She totaled 24 kills on .404 hitting and 10 blocks assists in the two matches on Friday.
“Whitney’s been on a mission all summer and in two-a-days,” Cook said. “I’ve just told her she has to expect to play great because she’s worked really hard. She’s our Lifter of the Year and she’s been training great. We just have to keep her believing.”
Evans, a junior, and Lauenstein, a sophomore, developed a strong connection while they played together at Waverly and got a chance to show off that chemistry to Huskers fans on Friday night.
“Coach makes so many Waverly jokes during practice, but it’s so fun and we played together for so long, so it really feels comfortable with her,” Evans said.
Madi Kubik wasn’t far behind with 14 kills on .414 hitting, eight digs and three blocks. Kaitlyn Hord added eight kills on .538 hitting and a match-high five blocks as Nebraska hit .318 as a team and notched nine blocks.
Hord totaled 13 kills on .632 hitting and 12 blocks assists in her two starts on Friday.
“It was amazing,” Hord said about her first game day as a Husker. “It was great to play with all the fans cheering. The fans are on another level. They’re so supportive. It’s great playing with these girls as well. It just brings a smile on my face. I couldn’t be happier.”
Lexi Rodriguez led the defensive effort with a match-high 16 digs, six assists and one ace. Nicklin Hames added 11 digs and two aces. Evans notched her first career double-double with 36 assists and 10 digs. Nebraska held Tulsa to .038 hitting while cutting its service errors in half, from 10 in the first match to five.
“I see that every day,” Cook said of Evans’ performance. “She’s very consistent. She’s not real flashy. She missed a few sets, but she also made a lot of great sets and she ran the team really well and led really well, which she does a great job of. She’s been rotating, we rotate them both, and I told her she was going to get some matches.”
The Huskers got off to a good start as Rodriguez served a 4-0 run to give Nebraska a 5-1 lead early, but the Golden Hurricane fired back with its own 4-0 run, then pulled ahead 9-7. Cook let the Huskers play through the adversity, however, and Nebraska settled in enough to rip off a 14-3 run to take a 21-12 lead, burning through both of Tulsa’s timeouts in the process.
Nebraska closed the set out with back-to-back kills from Batenhorst up the left sideline and Kubik out of the back row. The Huskers hit .385 in the first set and held Tulsa to .061. Lauenstein out-killed the Golden Hurricane by herself with nine kills on 12 swings while Kubik added five kills. Neither of them recorded an error in the first set.
After Tulsa struck first in set two, Nebraska responded with a 6-0 run featuring Kenzie Knuckles at the service line and the Huskers never looked back. Hames served a 7-0 run that featured back-to-back aces. Mendelson notched her first two kills as a Husker back-to-back to cap the run and give the Huskers a 16-3 lead.
Those proved to be the only two kills of the night for Mendelson, though she added four books including one solo stuff to her stat line.
“She was really nervous tonight,” Cook said of his freshman middle. “She worked through it a little bit, but she just kind of reverted to her most comfortable shot which was the same shot every time. I thought she did a pretty nice job blocking. I just asked her, I said ‘What’s the most nervous you’ve ever been in your life?’ She’s played a lot of big stuff. She goes, ‘You just saw it,’ which is great; I could tell. But you can see she gets after it. Nothing bothers her. She comes right back if she makes an error, and that was good. Remember, she should be at Friday night football or high school tonight.”
Tulsa made a small push with a 4-0 run to cut the deficit to nine, but the Huskers scored the final four points of the set thanks to some strong serving from Rodriguez, who delivered an ace then set up a set-point block for Mendelson and Kubik with a strong serve.
Nebraska hit .375 and held Tulsa to .083. Kubik took charge with seven kills on 12 swings. Mendelson had a solo block to go with her block assist and two kills in the set.
Tulsa again scored first in set three, but Nebraska responded with a 9-0 run featuring Evans at the service line. Batenhorst came alive during the run with four of Nebraska’s six kills, finishing with seven in the match. Tulsa ended Nebraska’s run with three straight points, but the Huskers pushed the lead to 10 with a couple of Lauenstein kills and cruised from there.
One final Lauenstein kill gave the Huskers match point and a strong serve from Hames led to a Tulsa ball-handling error to close out the night. Nebraska hit .205 in the third set and held Tulsa to minus-.026.
Saturday night will pit two 2-0 teams against each other as the Huskers face off against Pepperdine in the final match of the tournament. The Waves swept Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the afternoon game. First serve on Saturday is schedule for 7 p.m. on BTN-Plus.
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.