MINNEAPOLIS — Nebraska was off early, then Illinois went cold late as the second national semifinal stretched to a decisive fifth set. It was there when Nebraska’s senior leadership took over.
The Huskers (29-6) are heading back to the National Championship after a 3-2 win over Illinois (32-4) in which the Huskers won each of the final three sets 25-23, 25-20 and 15-11.
It wasn’t enough to just make it to a fourth consecutive Final Four, no, Nebraska made things as entertaining as possible by coming back from a 2-0 deficit to win. On Wednesday, head coach John Cook said the Huskers — a seven seed — weren’t supposed to make it this far. Given what they lost, that they did serves as another sign of his head coaching brilliance but also Nebraska’s mettle.
The Huskers entered the day having not lost a set at the NCAA Tournament. In the early parts of set No. 1, Nebraska looked comfortable as the two sides traded points. Illinois couldn’t get the lead but never dropped too far behind as the Huskers kept firing on offense.
Freshman Nicklin Hames started as strong as you could hope from a first-year player, with three of her career-high-tying five kills on dumps early.
Then a 4-1 run gave the Illini its first lead and they never looked back. They took the first set 25-22 while hitting .269 on the best defense in volleyball. Nebraska was allowing teams to hit .136 against them coming into the match.
Junior Jacqueline Quade did most of the damage herself. She finished the night with 28 kills (.237 hitting), 10 digs and two service aces. Illinois was able to get her rolling and get her to her spots, particularly in a second set where the Illini raced out to a 6-0 lead.
Nebraska wasn’t really able to do the same in the early going.
Sophomore Lauren Stivrins couldn’t get involved. Sophomore Lexi Sun couldn’t hit her spots. Nebraska committed 12 service errors as a team.
The second set was the one that looked like it would do the Huskers in.
There was that 6-0 open for Illinois. There was Nebraska hitting .129. There was a 5-1 response from Illinois that included three Quade kills and stopped a Nebraska run, taking a 13-9 lead up to 18-10. Then there was a 6-1 run from Illinois to close the set that included four Nebraska errors. Illinois took a commanding two-set lead with a 25-16 set win.
With its back against the wall in the third, Nebraska got the response it needed.
Stivrins provided the initial spark, with three of her eight kills in the set and Nebraska went up 13-9 then 21-16 after an attack error from Quade. Life. But a 7-1 run from Illinois snuffed it and put a sellout crowd at the Target Center on edge. Nebraska was labeled the visiting team, but inside the arena felt like friendly territory for those in red.
An overpass from Illinois’ Megan Cooney set Foecke up over on the left side of the floor and you could just see her ready to end things. She blasted the ball into the back right corner and gave Nebraska a 25-23 set three win. The Huskers scored the final three points.
In the fourth set, Nebraska took all the momentum back, closing on a 7-2 run, with kills from Stivrins, Sun, Jazz Sweet and an ace from Hames.
In the fifth and final set, the two sides went back and forth. A Nebraska timeout with the score knotted at 10-all felt like the final break before a dramatic finish.
Then Foecke sailed a ball wide right and things were once again tied at 12-all. Cook came out to challenge a touch on Illinois, a challenge he won, and Nebraska went up 13-11. Illinois never got another point.
Kenzie Maloney’s only service ace of the game put Nebraska up 14-11.
Then Foecke ended it, as was only appropriate. The senior finished the night with 19 kills while hitting .300, with 11 digs and two aces.
— Derek Peterson (@DrPeteyHV) December 14, 2018
Nebraska will get the chance to defend its title. It’ll play Stanford on Saturday for the national championship.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.