No. 5 Nebraska showed little rust — at least offensively — from its 19-day layoff, sweeping Texas State on Thursday to advance to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Huskers took down the Bobcats 25-18, 25-17, 25-20 while setting a new season-high in hitting at .398. The Huskers held Texas State to .185 hitting and out-blocked the Bobcats seven to one.
“They also hit .200 on us, so that’s a result of not playing and not training a lot,” Coach John Cook said. “Offensively we did do well, but it just felt a little sluggish, a little discombobulated at times, compared to my last memory when we were at Michigan the second night, we were humming. But we just kept encouraging them to work through it and we had three pretty consistent games where we beat them 18, 17 and 20. But I see a lot of areas where we could be better.”
Middle blocker Lauren Stivrins added 10 kills on .571 hitting while playing just two sets. Middle blocker Kayla Caffey added nine kills on .667 hitting as the Husker middles dominated throughout the match.
“It certainly puts a lot of pressure on other teams,” Cook said. “Nicklin did a great job tonight; they had a lot of one-on-ones and they should kill the ball when they get one-on-ones. Of course, we have to pass to do that and I thought our passers did a really good job of passing tonight. We had maybe four or five breakdowns that I thought we didn’t get good passes or we got aced, but overall Nicklin was in some great spots most of the day and that allows her to set those middles. It just puts a lot of heat on teams when you can do that.”
Cook didn’t mention an injury regarding Stivrins sitting the third set, but Kubik did say it was a little weird not having their captain on the court and shed a bit more light on the situation.
“We’ve known about Lauren being injured and were just kind of preparing for however she’s feeling on any given day,” Kubik said. “Obviously we want her to be out on the floor as much as possible but we understand her body and her health has to come first. As a team, we’ve just mentally prepared for that coming into the tournament, knowing that there might be a third set where she needs to keep her jumps down like today and that we need to all step up and bring leadership skills to be successful.”
Kubik got the Huskers on the board for the first time since March 26 as she terminated on the first rally. However, Texas State showed off some firepower early, keeping pace with Nebraska by putting down some big kills and tooling the Nebraska block. After six early ties, Kubik served a 4-0 run to give the Huskers a 14-10 lead.
“Coach talked about that at the beginning,” Kubik said about getting off to a good start. “We were super excited just because obviously we hadn’t played in three weeks and then our first match being the second round of the tournament. So super excited, it was fun to be back out on the court with my teammates.”
Nebraska stretched its lead to 20-14 with a 3-0 run including an ace by Kenzie Knuckles. The Huskers slipped up momentarily, hitting long twice then surrendering an ace to allow Texas State to cut the lead down to three at 21-18.
Coach John Cook called a timeout to regroup and Stivrins put down back-to-back kills out of the break to spark a 4-0 run to end the set and give the Huskers a 1-0 lead. Nebraska hit .323 and held the Bobcats to .094. Stivrins terminated on five of her six swings.
Nebraska continued to roll in the second set, opening the game with a 5-0 run served by Knuckles. The Huskers had two kills and two blocks during that run, which drew an early timeout from the Bobcats. Nebraska pushed the lead to 8-2 before the sides started trading sideouts for a while.
Nebraska used a 4-0 run including three straight kills from Stivrins to double up the Bobcats at 18-9 and the Huskers cruised into the intermission from there to take a 2-0 lead. Jazz Sweet tooled the Texas State block on set point to finish it off.
Nebraska hit .500 with 19 kills in the second set. The Bobcats hit .250 but couldn’t find a way to slow down the Huskers. Stivrins had five more kills in the second set while Caffey matched her with five kills on five swings. The Husker middles had 17 of Nebraska’s 33 kills through two sets on .652 hitting.
Callie Schwarzenbach started in place of Stivrins in game three, recording two kills and an error on four attempts.
“We were up 2-0 and we’ve been training Callie to be in matches so we wanted to get her in there and put her in that spot because we’re going to play some big, physical teams,” Cook said. “We had started in rotations with Lauren at left front in both the first two games, so she got plenty of work, plenty of action. So the goal was to get Callie some time because we’re going to need her size, I think.”
Caffey opened the set with another kill, but Texas State responded with a kill and an ace to take its first lead of the day at 2-1. It was short-lived, however, as the Huskers pulled ahead with a 4-1 run featuring plenty of Caffey and Sweet.
Texas State continued to battle, cutting the deficit to one four times, but the Huskers used a 3-0 run featuring kills from Kubik and Sweet and an ace from Knuckles to create a bit of separating at 15-11. The Bobcats refused to roll over, tying the match at 17-all, 19-all and 20-all.
The Huskers stepped it up and closed out the sweep with a 5-0 run, however, which featured a pair of kills and a block assist from Sweet.
“We got a great sideout,” Cook said. “Nicklin just went back there and created all kinds of stress for them serving.They were in their rotation one and Nicklin just blew that thing up. They couldn’t get their two best hitters the ball I think about five times in a row. That’s what I expect our team to be able to do to make a run, especially after 20.”
Nebraska hit .375 with 17 kills while the Bobcats hit .219 in the third set. Kubik led the Huskers with six kills and no errors on 14 attempts in game three.
The Huskers advance to the third round and will face 12th-seeded Baylor on Sunday. The Bears survived a five-set battle with Pepperdine in the second round while hitting .326. Outside hitter Yossiana Pressley, the 2019 AVCA National Player of the Year, had 26 kills on .321 hitting.
“It’s going to be a great match,” Cook said. “[Pressley] is going to get a lot of sets, so you kind of know where it’s going and we have to find a way to stop her, and if she gets a kill we have to come right back and sideout so they can’t make runs. She’s probably going to get some kills; we’re going to do everything right and she’s still going to kill the ball. Then we’ve got to make sure nobody else hurts us; that’s going to be the key to that match. I think our payers will be fired up to play them.”
Sunday’s match will serve as a reunion for one Husker as Kubik was high school teammates with Baylor setter Hannah Sedwick at Valley High School in Des Moines, Iowa.
“We’ve been texting a little bit,” Kubik said. “They were actually at the zoo at the same time we were, so we were texting trying to find each other. We didn’t end up getting to but I guess we will find each other on Sunday.”
Sunday’s start time is 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.