No. 3 Nebraska opened Big Ten play with a come-from-behind victory at No. 20 Illinois on Friday night in a match that went the distance.
The Huskers (9-1) survived a five-round bout with the Illini (5-5) in Champaign (25-22, 25-27, 26-28, 25-22, 15-10) behind a strong performance from junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet.
Sweet led the Huskers with a season-high 18 kills as Nebraska hit .256 as a team. The Huskers recorded 13 blocks and 73 digs while holding Illinois to .174 hitting. Both sides recorded 13 service errors, but the Illini held a 5-4 advantage in aces.
Sweet hit .351 on a season-high 37 attempts as sophomore setter Nicklin Hames continued to find the hot hand throughout the night. Sweet added six digs and four blocks, making an impact on both offense and defense.
Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had 11 kills on .318 hitting and five blocks. Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik had 11 kills — including some big swings in the fifth set — and seven digs. Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun also finished with 11 kills, 10 digs and five blocks. Sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach flirted with a double-double, recording season highs in kills (eight), blocks (eight) and hitting percentage (.583).
Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles returned after missing Nebraska’s win over Wichita State and posted a match-high 21 digs. Hames had 58 assists and 11 digs.
The Big Ten’s kills leader, Illinois outside hitter Jacqueline Quade, matched Sweet with 18 kills but Nebraska held her to .143 hitting with 10 attack errors.
Nebraska, who had been a slow starter throughout the nonconference, came out on fire, hitting .321 and holding the Illini to -.030 with 10 errors in the first set. Nebraska used a 4-0 run served by Hames to create some separation early at 10-6, but the Illini used a 4-0 run of its own to pull ahead 17-16. The Huskers responded with another 4-0 run — this time with Stivrins at the service line — to take a 20-17 lead. Illinois pulled within one three times but the Huskers closed the set on a 3-1 run.
Illinois led most of the way in the second set before a 5-1 run gave the Nebraska a 22-21 lead. Illinois answered to tie it up, starting a run of five straight sideouts. Illinois finally broke that streak to earn set point at 25-24, but following a timeout, sophomore outside hitter Capri Davis tied it up with a kill. Illinois responded with a kill to earn set point again and this time the Illini blocked Davis to seal it. After just three attack errors in the first set, Nebraska recorded 11 in the second and hit .104 while the Illini hit .174.
Nebraska took a 7-3 lead early in game three but Illinois used a 3-0 run to tie it up at 15-15. After three straight sideouts gave Nebraska a 17-16 lead, Illinois scored four straight to pull ahead. Illinois held onto the lead until Nebraska ripped off three straight to tie it again at 23-all. Illinois took set point at 24-23, 25-24 and 26-25, but each time the Huskers evened the score. Nebraska ran out of luck on the fourth set point, however, as Illinois got a kill from Quade then blocked Sun to take a 2-1 lead in the match. The Huskers hit .306, but the Illini one-upped them with .310 hitting including two more kills.
After four early ties in set four, Nebraska pulled ahead 8-6 with an ace by sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller, an error by Quade and a kill by Kubik. Nebraska’s advantage bounced between one and three points until the Illini tied it again at 14-all with a 3-0 run. After trading points, Nebraska scored three straight to pull ahead once again, this time for good. The Huskers built the lead up to four a couple of times but Illinois drew within one three times before an error gave the Huskers set point. Junior defensive specialist Hayley Densberger closed it out with an ace to send the match to a fifth set. Nebraska hit .243 with just three errors compared to seven miscues and .167 hitting for the Illini.
Nebraska opened game five with a 3-0 run then stretched the lead to four at 7-3, but Illinois didn’t fold. A 4-1 Illinois run cut it to one and drew a timeout from John Cook, but whatever he said during the huddle seemed to work. A 5-1 run put the Huskers firmly in control at 13-8 and Nebraska finished it off from there. The Huskers hit .474, converting 11 of their 19 swings into kills. Illinois hit .267 but only managed to record six kills.
The Huskers will continue the road trip on Saturday with a match at Northwestern. First serve is set for 7 p.m.
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.