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Huskers Excited for Challenge and Opportunity Ahead in NCAA Tournament

November 27, 2022

The Huskers knew they were in the field, so in one sense there wasn’t much suspense heading into Sunday night’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show.

Even so, they had to wait longer to learn their draw than any other team as Nebraska was the final squad announced. 

A cheer erupted from the Devaney Center locker room as Minnesota appeared as the No. 2 seed and final team in the Texas bracket. The Huskers had to face the Longhorns in the Elite Eight each of the last two years. Another cheer rang out as Pittsburgh popped up as the No. 2 seed in Wisconsin’s quarter of the bracket. The Badgers have beat Nebraska 10 straight times including in last year’s national championship match.

The final cheer sounded when Nebraska’s name appeared, nearly 45 minutes after the show began.

“I looked at Kenzie, I think, and I was just like, ‘I feel like we’re always the last one,’” Lexi Rodriguez said. “But she was just like, ‘No, last year, we were announced first.’ I feel like just seeing where everyone’s going, I think we’re looking forward to playing all the teams that are on our side. We don’t like to wait, but nothing we can do.”

Waiting aside, Sunday was the final chance for the team’s seniors to sit down with their teammates and learn their postseason draw, which Madi Kubik called “bittersweet.”

“I think I have more joy about it than I do sadness,” Kubik said. “I think this is an awesome group and it’s been so great to just learn and grow with this group of people. I think we’re just excited for the challenge and we’re excited to do it together.”

Nebraska made the waiting game a little easier as well as the team conducted their secret Santa gift exchange during the breaks. Rodriguez said it went well and that everyone got what they wanted.

“We all had to guess each other, but there were only four people that guessed it on the first try,” Kubik said.”

Now the work begins, and there’s plenty of it for the Huskers to do before they take the court again on Thursday. Kenzie Knuckles’ season-ending injury dramatically changed the Huskers’ rotations, and Nicklin Hames’ status is currently up in the air after missing the regular season finale against Minnesota. The team had to adjust on the fly two different times last week, and now they’ll have three full days to prepare their next opponent.

“I think this this week will be really good for us,” Rodriguez said. “Like Coach said, we have a lot of things that we still need to improve on. And so I think just having this fresh start, the Big Ten is over with, the postseason is starting and we’re going to have a fresh mindset and we’re going to get ready to get after it again.”

Nebraska will face MEAC champion Delaware State in the first round, with either Kansas or No. 7 seed Miami waiting in the second round.

“Delaware State, I don’t know a thing about them,” Coach John Cook said immediately after the selection show. “I don’t even know their nickname. Are they the fighting something? Hornets? OK. John Baylor would know it. But right now that’s our focus. We’re glad to be playing and I think we’re playing Thursday-Friday, so that’ll be interesting; short week. The team’s fired up and it was kind of weird being the last school called up, so that was long wait, but we’re excited to be home and that’s that’s our focus right now.”

The Tournament typically starts on Friday for the Huskers, but this year the timeline has been moved up a day with the first round in Lincoln on Thursday and the second round to follow on Friday.

“I just hope our fans are fired up and ready to go Thursday and Friday,” Cook said. “We’ve never played in a Thursday-Friday that I can remember. Whoever advances out here is traveling, so it does buy an extra day because you spend a day traveling whatever place you’re going to. I don’t know, unless Purdue knocks off Louisville, and maybe it comes here.”

Barring an upset of the top seed in the Huskers’ quarter of the bracket, Dani Busboom Kelly’s Louisville Cardinals, this weekend will be the final one for the Huskers at the Devaney Center, and the Huskers are looking forward to making the most of the home-court advantage.

“Husker Nation creates the best home-court advantage in college volleyball,” Kubik said definitively.

The road back to Omaha and the Final Four won’t be easy for the Huskers, especially after losing a key part of their rotation in Knuckles, but the schedule they faced this year prepared them for what they’ll see in the postseason. Nebraska played five NCAA Tournament teams in the nonconference, and eight of their 20 Big Ten matches were against Tournament teams as well.

“I knew after we played Pepperdine and after we played Loyola [Marymount] they were going to be an NCAA tournament teams; those were good teams and they had some great wins … Those were tough teams and then throw in Kentucky … Those are really important matches because you heard them talk about some of those in the nonconference. But the other thing was, I thought they made a really good point for us is we didn’t lose to a non-top-10 team. I’ve been talking about how this team shows up every night and they get after it and play and they don’t take anybody lightly and they know they’re going to get everybody’s best shot, and that’s hard to do in a long Big Ten season.”

The Huskers will certainly get the Hornets’ best shot on Thursday. First serve for Nebraska’s match is scheduled for 7 p.m. CT. Friday’s second-round match is set for 7 p.m. as well.

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