Nebraska finished off a 2-0 week with four-set win (25-19, 24-26, 25-20, 25-17) over Illinois in front of a crowd of 8,256 at the Devaney Center Saturday night.
The Illini, led by former Nebraska assistant Chris Tamas, came to Lincoln after a five-set win in Iowa City last night and were receiving votes in the last AVCA Coaches Poll.
“I told the team this would be a tough match because it’s Illinois; they’re a really good team, [Jordyn] Poulter’s a really good player, Chris [Tamas] is a really good coach and the fact is he’s coming back here tonight and they stressed us tonight,” Coach John Cook said. “We didn’t handle it very well in game two and then we handled it a little better in game three and we handled it really well in game four. It was really good to see our team work through that and make some adjustments. Things weren’t going our way, we couldn’t dig balls, but we stayed with it serving and finally started touching balls, blocking balls, digging balls.”
Nebraska’s left-side hitters, junior Mikaela Foecke and senior Annika Albrecht, combined for 32 kills on the night. Foecke led all players with 17 kills but only hit .196 for the match. Cook isn’t worried about the low percentage, however.
“Mikaela’s is really impressive because she had [Illinois’s top two blockers] Poulter and [Ali] Bastianelli on her all night,” Cook said. “That’s a pretty impressive number by her. Anni kind of got her kills out of the back row, out of the front row, and she did a nice job. She had a little easier task with the block in front of her. Illinois is a big, physical team, and I think that’s pretty impressive. Kelly [Hunter] does a nice job of putting those guys in some nice spots that they can hit shots and find ways to get kills.”
Hunter put up a well-rounded stat-line with a season-high 51 assists, 11 digs, six kills, two blocks and two aces, but Cook said there was still room for improvement for his senior co-captain and All-American setter.
“I thought Kelly at times did really, really well, but we had a couple runs where she made some mistakes, our hitters made some mistakes, we set tight. But I thought Kelly competed really well tonight and had some great sets … Six kills — we want her to have a kill a game; she had six kills at .500 so that was a really good job by her. We challenged her to do that tonight because we felt like we could take advantage of that.”
Hunter served the Huskers to a 6-0 run that put them ahead 8-3, the first of several big serving runs by the Huskers who finished with six aces to five errors.
“If you want to play, you have to be able to serve,” Cook said. “We try to get our six best servers serving and we work really hard at it. That was a big difference tonight in the match was our ability to stress them a little bit.”
Illinois cut the deficit to one at 12-11 thanks to a 3-0 run but Nebraska responded with a 5-0 run of its own. Illinois made one last push to pull within two but Nebraska closed the set on a 5-1 run to go up 1-0.
Illinois’ block gave Nebraska serious problems in the second set as the Illini recorded five blocks in the frame. Nebraska fell behind as much as five at 15-10 but rallied back to tie the match at 23-all on an ace by true freshman Hayley Densberger. The teams traded points, but a kill by Jacqueline Quade gave the Illini set point and Nebraska hit into the Illinois block on the next set to seal it.
Nebraska came out on fire in the third set, racing out to an 11-4 lead and stretching that advantage to as much as 10 at 23-13. Illinois made it interesting with a 6-0 run late, but kills by Hunter and Foecke finished off the set and put the Huskers up 2-1 in the match.
Nebraska took a 7-5 lead in the fourth set, but Illinois reeled off the next four points to pull ahead. Nebraska countered with a 5-0 run to go up 12-9 sparked by back-to-back kills from Sweet. Illinois cut its deficit to one at 14-13 but Nebraska created some separation with an 8-2 run and held on to finish off the match. Sweet notched five of her 11 kills in the fourth set with the final one coming on match point.
See said she didn’t necessarily know she was going to get more sets in the fourth set.
“We just try to evenly distribute the ball and not try to set up anyone,” Sweet said. “I’m just usually always ready to get the ball, because you never really know because Kelly can really get you with the ball from anywhere.”
Sweet hit .526 overall, committing just one error on her 19 swings. That bumps her season percentage up to .295, good for tops on the team among outside hitters.
“We probably should have set her more — we were trying to,” Cook said. “I thought she handled it really well tonight. She's a young blocker — she still has to learn how to block better — but I think Jazz has done a great job. She doesn’t get a lot of attention, but look at her numbers.”
Take away the second set and Illinois recorded just four total blocks in the other three as Nebraska made the necessary adjustments to put down kills against one of the best blocking teams in the Big Ten in the third and fourth sets.
“They’re a really good blocking team and they have really good middles, so they’re usually there and closed,” Sweet said. “They’re really good at taking [away] tendencies as well, so you just kind of have to think about a new shot or a new way to get it around the block.”
On the other end, junior libero Kenzie Maloney finished with a match-high 17 kills, her eighth straight in double figures.
“I think Kenzie’s really learned how to see where the hitters are going to go and maybe be a little bit out of position but still in a good spot,” Hunter said. “I think she’s just learned how to really read and be able to tell when they’re tipping or, if they’re going to go a certain shot, she can kind of anticipate it a little bit more. I think she’s just really grown defensively.”
Next up for Nebraska is a road trip through Michigan. The Huskers will take on the No. 10 Spartans of Michigan State in East Lansing on Friday (7 p.m. on BTN) before swinging through Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines (receiving votes) on Sunday (12 p.m. on ESPNU).
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.