LEXINGTON, Ky. – In the blue corner you had Kentucky (29-4), SEC co-champs, the team that, in the view of many back in the Cornhusker State, stole Nebraska’s four seed and got the chance to have the road to the Final Four run right through its mid-century gym. It would’ve been the first such appearance for the Wildcats, a program that appears to be on the brink of joining the game’s elite.
In the red corner, you had a program that already is, a group that thinks nothing of detouring through the bluegrass to return to what will definitely be a red-drenched NCAA Semifinal match in Kansas City next weekend. The Huskers have done it before, and they did it again, beating Kentucky 3-1 (25-19, 25-22, 25-27, 25-22).
The match was closer than the 3-1 tally made it look.
“We had to dig as deep tonight as we have all season,” Nebraska Coach John Cook said. The reward was the program’s third straight trip to the Final Four.
“As a competitor you want to be mad because you just lost a competition, but I can’t find any reason to be mad,” said Kentucky Coach Craig Skinner. "I’m just really proud, with myself and my staff, to be able to coach this team. They did everything right. You look at the stats, that was about as even a match as you can get.”
Nebraska (30-4) outhit high-powered Kentucky .271-.252 on the match and held a slight edge in sideout percentage, 70-63, but it didn’t look that even early. Outside hitter Annika Albrecht set the tone with the very first serve, a diving ball on the sideline that allowed the Huskers to set their offense and resulted in a kill by Mikaela Foecke. Nebraska jumped out to a 5-1 lead on back-to-back aces from libero Kenzie Maloney, and Kentucky never got closer than three the rest of the way.
“Starting out so strong it showed Kentucky we’re here to play and we don’t care that you’re at home,” setter Kelly Hunter said.
It looked like Nebraska, which hadn’t lost a set in the tournament prior to Saturday, might keep cruising as the Huskers twice built six-point leads late in the second set. But consecutive kills from the Wildcats star outside hitter Leah Edmond were part of a 5-1 Kentucky run that brought the Memorial Coliseum to life and forced a Nebraska timeout. The Huskers ran a play for middle blocker Briana Holman who put the set away with a thumping kill.
Kentucky’s late rally was a sign of things to come in the third set, however. The Wildcats quickly built a 7-3 lead and kept the Huskers off balance. Trailing 16-11, Nebraska recorded consecutive points for the first time in the set on a Kentucky serving error and a kill by Foecke. A kill by Edmond couldn’t stop the Huskers’ momentum as Nebraska went on a 10-6 run to put the Wildcats a point away from elimination.
The “Comeback Cats” weren’t done. A kill by Emily Franklin made it 24-23. Albrecht’s kill to put the match away missed long by inches to make it 24-all. Hunter responded with a savvy tip to the back corner to give the Huskers another set point before Edmond answered for the Wildcats. Attack errors by Hunter and Foecke gave Kentucky the margin it needed.
Momentum could have shifted at that point to a Kentucky team that had won its previous two tournament matches in five sets, but Nebraska rebound quickly. The Huskers ripped off three points with Hunter at the service line to jump out to a 5-1 lead early in the fourth set. Nebraska didn’t relinquish the lead until an attack error by Albrecht made it 18-18. As she did often in the match, Holman responded with an emphatic must-have kill, her 11th on a night where she hit .421.
Nebraska’s senior leadership was evident throughout, but the play of the match belonged to true freshman Jazz Sweet. Cook said she was struggling early on, but with the Huskers up 22-20 Sweet came up with a huge solo block of SEC all-freshman outside hitter Avery Skinner.
“That might have won it for us right there,” Cook said. The three-point cushion held up as Sweet got a kill to make it 24-21. Two rallies later, a service error by Ashley Dusek punched Nebraska’s ticket to the Final Four.
Foecke led the Huskers with 18 kills on .375 hitting and was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. Albrecht (14 kills, 11 digs) and Hunter (46 assists, 11 digs) earned all-tournament honors as well.
Despite its storied history, Nebraska had never made three consecutive trips to the Final Four previously, and few would have projected the Huskers to make it this year following the loss of three All-Americans from the 2016 team.
“I think this year, on paper, we might not be the most talented,” Hunter said. “We have that chemistry that really brings us to another level. We just go out there and have fun and have the mentality of point-by-point, and last year I don’t know if we had that.”
Skinner, who coached with Cook at Wisconsin and Nebraska over the years, said the Huskers’ run to the Final Four was “one of the best coaching jobs I think John and his staff have done.”
He has put together his own impressive run in Lexington, which was on his mind after his best Kentucky team to date had played its last match.
“There’s only 10 programs in the country that has ever won a national championship in our sport. The dream of mine and our staff when we got here was to become an elite program,” Skinner said. “There’s only 10 teams in the country that have been to 13 straight NCAA Tournaments. We’re one of them. Our dream is to be an elite program and compete for a national championship.”
Nebraska will get that opportunity next weekend in what is likely to be a de facto home match in Kansas City on Dec. 14. The Huskers will face a familiar foe when they get there, as they await the winner of Saturday’s regional final between Penn State and Michigan State.