No. 12 Nebraska finished off a tournament sweep in the Americas Classic on Saturday afternoon by taking down St. Mary’s 26-24, 25-22, 25-18 at the Devaney Center in front of 8,305 fans.
Senior middle blocker Briana Holman was named tournament MVP after averaging 2.78 kills and 2.0 blocks per set while hitting .525 in three wins for the Huskers (3-2).
“I think I played well but I also think that that’s a team award and that’s a reflection of our whole team,” Holman said. “It was nice to have Kelly [Hunter] back; I think that she came in and did a great job. [Anezka Szabo] came in and I think she did a great job. I would just say that that was a team award, not my award. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Holman was joined on the all-tournament team by junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke (3.22 kills per set on .404 hitting and 2.0 digs per set with four service aces) and junior Kenzie Maloney (5.1 digs per set).
St. Mary’s outside hitters Payton Rund and Morgan Hughes, Oral Roberts outside hitter Laura Milos and UMBC outside hitter Carmen Freeman rounded out the all-tournament team.
The first two sets included 11 ties and six lead changes as St. Mary’s stifled Nebraska’s attack with its block early and found creative ways to put down kills. However, the Huskers settled down and controlled most of the third set with a single tie midway through the set. Nebraska hit .233 for the match while holding St. Mary’s to .073.
“I thought we came out little bit flat to start this match, thinking that maybe St. Mary’s would be similar to Oral Roberts that we played last night,” Coach John Cook said. “You could tell, just the way we started off, a lot of errors. It was ugly. But St. Mary’s came out very focused and was at a whole different level than what they’ve been playing at this tournament. Hats off to them; they’re a very well-coached team, they serve very tough.
“I told our team last night this would be a great test today, and we certainly got that. It was really good for us to be down and come back and win a case game in game one; that’s always a great confidence-builder. I just thought we got better as the match went on. That’s a team, they play pretty fast, they’re smart, they keep the ball in play and it took us a while to adjust to handling their junk shots and their roll shots and converting them. They make you play and earn it.”
After playing in just two sets during the first weekend and recording two kills apiece in each of her first two matches of the Americas Classic, true freshman Anezka Szabo exploded for a team-high 10 kills on .400 hitting.
“I just tried to bring a lot of energy and do what I could when I came into the game, going all-out in those big-time moments and trusting my training,” Szabo said.
Cook said Szabo was a big part of the game-plan heading into the match.
“Our game plan was to get the ball behind the setter,” Cook said. “Hunter [Atherton] got her the ball and we knew we could score over there. I think she killed about every ball that was a good set and a couple errors she had were really tough sets but she did a nice job. I like Anezka playing well because it’s going to continue to put heat on Jazz [Sweet] and it’s a good competition.”
Holman and Annika Albrecht finished with nine kills apiece and Holman added a match-high seven blocks. Maloney recorded a career-high 22 digs to lead all players while Foecke added 11 digs to go with six kills. Atherton had a match-high 21 assists while Hunter added 17 more as the two setters continued to split time.
The match featured some tense moments with the game up for grabs and Nebraska’s freshmen, including Szabo and middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, came through in the clutch.
“Very confident [in them],” Cook said. “I really like these guys. I love Anezka’s fight and spirit out there. She just really competes. We need those guys. Last year’s class is gone, so we need new people to step up and that’s what this whole preseason is about, because we have to figure that out before the Big Ten.”
Nebraska played from behind for most of the first set, and faced a tough spot as the Gaels took a 24-21 lead late in the frame. However, Nebraska staved off all three set points and then Sweet, the true freshman opposite hitter, put down a kill to give the Huskers set point. An attack by St. Mary’s went long on the following point, giving Nebraska 26-24 win.
“I think it showed resiliency,” Holman said about the comeback. “I think this team’s really resilient, we work very hard and I think our chemistry is good. We trust each other and I think in moments like that, that’s when it really shows.”
Nebraska fell behind again in the second set but pulled ahead 18-12 at one point. St. Mary’s rallied to within one a couple times, but Nebraska held on and Szabo finished off the set with a kill to put Nebraska up 2-0 heading into the intermission.
Nebraska took charge from the start of the third set with a quick 4-0 lead. St. Mary’s battled back to tie the game at 15-15, but Nebraska responded with a 6-0 run and cruised to victory from there.
“We’ve got a lot to work on, but I’m sure every coach is saying that right now,” Cook said. “We’ve competed really well, we’ve done some good things but again there’s a learning curve. Anna’s got to learn how to play six rotations. Mikaela has to learn how to play six rotations. We’ve got Lauren’s first time playing in a year-and-a-half. Hunter Atherton, first time playing in a year-and-a-half. Kelly’s trying to get back into it. Jazz and Anezka are freshmen. Anezka came here thinking she was going to redshirt … I think we’ve got some really good pieces. We’ve got to make them a great team.”
The Huskers will return to the Devaney Center next weekend to host No. 11 UCLA for two matches — Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m. Both matches will be televised on BTN.
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.