Nebraska put together back-to-back dominant defensive efforts to complete the Michigan weekend sweep, taking down Michigan in three sets on Sunday afternoon after beating Michigan State in four on Friday.
Nebraska (13-2, 5-1) handed the Wolverines (12-4, 5-1) their first loss of the conference season 25-21, 25-22, 25-14 in front of 8,028 fans at the Devaney Center.
“To start it off, it was a little shaky for both teams,” Coach John Cook said. “It was some ugly volleyball. But I thought we pulled ourselves out and finding a way to win game one was really, really big after being down so far. When I look at the weekend overall, I think the Huskers got tired of hearing about what Wisconsin hit against them and they had a great defensive effort Friday night and today. We held two Big Ten teams that had been playing really well and we held them to .019 and .038. That’s really, really great defense.”
Nebraska out-blocked Michigan 11 to three and held the Wolverines — the top hitting team in the Big Ten heading into the match — to a season-low .019. Nebraska overcame a slow start offensively to hit .280 in the match.
Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun flirted with a triple-double, posting 12 kills, 10 digs and seven blocks (three solo). Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins notched 11 kills without an error on 17 swings, her second straight match hitting over .600 at .647.
Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik had a match-high 11 digs to go with her five kills and three blocks (two solo). Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles had 10 digs and a career-high three aces. Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames finished with 34 assists and two kills.
Nebraska scored the first two points of the afternoon, but things went south from there with a 7-0 run by Michigan that included just one Wolverine kill. Stivrins ended the run with a kill and sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller followed it up with an ace, and the Huskers gradually cut into the deficit from there until a 3-0 run including a back-row blast by Kubik and back-to-back blocks gave Nebraska a 13-12 lead.
After a timeout by Michigan, the Wolverines ran off five straight points for a 17-13 lead. Both teams were hitting negative at that point. Sun ended the run with a kill but Michigan responded in kind. Nebraska took control from there, however, with a 6-0 run featuring two aces by Knuckles that put the Huskers up 20-18.
“My mentality was that we need to get back into the game as soon as possible and I know that it starts with the serve,” Knuckles said. “I kind of just trusted my training like Coach told me to and went from there … I think it just gave us a little bit of momentum and gave us a chance to play some defense and go from there.”
Michigan pulled within one a couple of times but Nebraska ended the set on a 3-0 run including one kill by Stivrins and two by Sun.
“I think today our goal was when it gets to the 20s, it’s time to turn it on, and we haven’t necessarily been doing that in the past matches,” Sun said. “That was definitely our goal today and I think we stepped up and were able to make that happen when it got close to the end.”
Stivrins and Sun had four kills apiece and neither one had an error, but the rest of Nebraska’s hitters combined for five kills and nine errors on 25 attempts. As a team, Nebraska hit .108 but held Michigan to minus-.029 with six kills and seven errors.
“Even though it was ugly on our side, we were still finding ways to score points with our serve, block and defense,” Cook said. “I just think that kept us in it and then the crowd got into it. We found a couple sideouts. They sided out 33%, we sided out 40%, so we sided out one more time than they did; that was pretty much the difference. Usually we’re 65%, really low numbers. But they served really tough… Once we eliminated those runs,our serve an block kept us in it and we found a way to win game one and took off from there.”
Nebraska used a 6-0 run served by Kubik early in set two to take a 10-6 lead despite having just one kill at that point. Michigan contributed six points to Nebraska’s lead via attack errors. Kubik missed her next serve and Michigan followed it up with an ace by Natalie Smith, the younger sister of former Husker setter Brooke Smith. After trading points, the Huskers put together a 4-0 run including back-to-back combo blocks by sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach and Sun to take a 16-9 lead.
Michigan turned the tide from there, scoring 11 of the next 15 points to tie the match at 20-all. That’s when Sun took over, recording three kills and a block assist in the final seven rallies to lead Nebraska to victory and give the Huskers a 2-0 lead at the intermission.
“Her position she plays, she’s going to be in a lot of big swings on critical points,” Cook said about Sun. “She’s got to go up and make great decisions and find ways to make kills, and she’s usually going to have two blockers on her.”
Nebraska hit .242 and held Michigan to .022 with nine more errors. Sun had six kills and three block assists.
Nebraska dominated the third set from start to finish to wrap up the sweep. Nebraska pulled ahead 7-3 early with a 4-0 run, then used a 3-0 run to stretch the lead to six at 13-7. Another 3-0 run made it nine at 19-10 and the Huskers cruised from there. The match ended on Michigan’s 24th attack error of the afternoon.
The Huskers hit .609 with 16 kills in the final set and held the Wolverines to .077. Nebraska had five blocks in the third, all of which were solo.
After getting swept by Wisconsin last Saturday and dropping the first set against Michigan State on Friday, the Huskers have won six straight sets on the strength of their defense.
“We did start off the weekend a little bit shaky,” Sun said. “I think that it’s good to feel like we finished strong and on a high note. We kept the pressure on them and were able to have great numbers on defense today and that’s what we were really striving for.”
The Huskers will have a quick turnaround as Nebraska hosts No. 20 Purdue on Pink Night on Wednesday. The match will be televised on ESPNU with an 8 p.m. start time.
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.