No. 5 Nebraska completed a perfect 17-0 season at the Devaney Center and advanced to the Sweet 16 next weekend with a 3-0 win against Washington State on Saturday night.
Nebraska (28-4) made short work of the Cougars (18-16) in the first two sets, winning 25-13 and 25-13, then held off a strong push after the intermission and pulled away late to close out the sweep with a 25-18 win in front of 8,103 fans.
“We didn’t really know that’s what we were looking towards this year, but we owe it to the fans and everyone who shows up every game, no matter what time we play or what day of the week it is,” senior setter Kelly Hunter said. “They were awesome this year. It’s always awesome to play and go undefeated at home.”
Nebraska will head to Lexington, Kentucky, next weekend after the No. 4 Wildcats came back from a 0-2 deficit to beat Western Kentucky in five. It will be Nebraska’s 33rd regional appearance, tied with Stanford for the most in NCAA history.
The Huskers put on a dominant defensive display against the Cougars, holding them to a season-low 20 kills and 0.33 hitting.
“[The] Huskers did a great job of building a game plan today and following it,” Coach John Cook said. “We blocked really well, we dug really well. I think we really frustrated Washington State. They were swinging pretty good last night and our team took that challenge on and did an awesome job and they I don’t think ever felt comfortable tonight.”
Nebraska held Washington State’s Taylor Mims, who had 28 kills in the Cougars’ first-round win over Florida State, to nine kills and .043 hitting.
“I thought we did really well [against Mims],” Cook said. “She’s a really crafty hitter. She has a lot of shots. I think we frustrated her. She was really pressing trying to get kills. She got a couple nice kills in game three, but we took away her shots and we were touching her on the block and then we were digging her. I’m not sure she’s felt that from many teams. It’s a combination of the block and our floor defense just not letting her get anything easy. It’s hard to get in a rhythm when that’s happening. She had 46 swings and only nine kills. That’s a great job by us. She’s a really nice player. I’m really impressed by her.”
The Huskers out-blocked the Cougars 10 to two while hitting .300.
Senior middle blocker Briana Holman led the way with 12 kills on .421 hitting and five blocks in her final match at the Devaney Center.
“[Having a performance in my final home match] means a lot,” Holman said. “It’s been a long journey to get to this point. I’m just super blessed to get the opportunity to play for such an amazing university. This means a lot to me and having a good game – my last game here – means everything to me. I’m really happy.”
Fellow middle blocker and redshirt freshman Lauren Stivrins added eight kills on a match-high .538 hitting. Senior outside hitter Annika Albrecht added nine kills and six digs. Hunter finished with 35 assists and nine digs.
Nebraska opened the first set with a 4-0 run, then reeled off another 5-0 run with freshman defensive specialist Hayley Densberger at the service line. The Malcolm, Nebraska, product notched an ace and made a couple of strong defensive plays during that stretch. Densberger and redshirt freshman setter Hunter Atherton have taken turns this season as a serving substitution.
“[Densberger] had a really good week at practice and we just let those guys go at it every day,” Cook said. “She had a hot serve. She ran a lot of points this week, and I mean a lot. We may have scored more points in her rotation than any other rotation, except maybe Sydney [Townsend]. She earned it in practice so we gave it a go. I loved how confident she was and she made some digs and made some good sets out of system.”
Another 4-0 run with senior Townsend serving gave the Huskers a 16-8 lead and Nebraska cruised to victory.
Washington State took it’s only lead of the match at 1-0 to start the second set, but Nebraska responded with a 6-0 run to draw a timeout by the Cougars. The teams traded a couple of points after play resumed until Nebraska pulled away with a 6-0 run to make it 14-3. The Cougars got no closer than eight points the rest of the set as Nebraska duplicated its 12-point margin of victory.
Washington State kept it close throughout much of the third set, but a 3-0 run put the Huskers up 18-13 with a sweep in their sights. Washington State made one last run to cut it to 20-18, but after a timeout by Cook the Huskers closed out the match on a 5-0 run with Albrecht at the service line.
The 1-0 deficit to start the second set was the only rally all weekend (230 in total) during which the Huskers trailed. Nebraska served up 16 aces to 10 errors in the two matches as well.
“I think we started with a lot of energy,” Hunter said. “We came out strong and took control of the matches right away. That’s something we haven’t really done all season. We’ve kind of let the other team come out strong. I think it was really important for us to just have the energy and play together as a unit because it felt like we were a great team out there. That’s what set us apart from teams in the past and other teams in the past is our team chemistry. I think just the energy we brought allowed us to play at another level.”
Nebraska will take on Colorado (24-9) on Friday after the Buffaloes swept No. 12 Baylor in the second round. On the other side of the bracket in Lexington, the host Wildcats will face No. 13 BYU. Times are still to be determined.
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.