COLUMBUS, Ohio — John Cook said he got a feeling of déjà vu as he sat at the podium for his Wednesday press conference in Columbus, Ohio, previewing the 10th-seeded Huskers’ semifinal match with No. 3 Pittsburgh.
Nebraska made the trip to Nationwide Arena just five years ago, for the 2016 Final Four. That trip didn’t go so well.
Texas swept the Huskers and sent them home almost as soon as they had arrived. After the first set on Thursday night against the Panthers, that feeling might have hit Cook once again. Pitt blitzed Nebraska out of the gates, winning the first set 25-16. The Huskers struggled in serve receive, they struggled to pass and they struggled to slow down Pitt’s up-tempo attack.
However, this time Nebraska took the first punch then countered. The Huskers dominated the second set then won the third and fourth as well to punch their ticket to the final and extend their stay in Columbus.
“I thought Pittsburgh came out and just was unbelievable the first game,” Cook said. “Their tempo, everything they were doing, it was perfect volleyball for several points. So I was a little worried that it could be a fast night. But our team hung in there. We started making some adjustments and made adjustments to Pittsburgh’s tempo, and I thought as the match went on, we just got stronger and stronger. The team did a great job of staying with it, playing the big points, making adjustments.
“Congratulations to Pittsburgh. They have a heck of a team and they had a great season. This is a big win for Nebraska, and, again, these players and this team did a great job today of finding a way to win that.”
Nebraska (26-7) beat Pitt (30-4) 16-25, 25-17, 25-20, 25-22, setting up an all-Big Ten final. No. 4 Wisconsin survived a five-set thriller against No. 1 Louisville in the first semifinal on Thursday.
After struggling to bother the Panthers with their serves in the first set, Nebraska settled in and made life more difficult the rest of the way while the panthers struggled to match the intensity without misfiring. The Huskers out-aced the Panthers six to five while Pitt had twice as many errors (12 to six). Nebraska hit .239 to Pitt’s .233.
Madi Kubik led the way for Nebraska with 13 kills on .222 hitting, seven digs and a season-high three aces. Kayla Caffey added 10 kills, though four attack errors in the fourth set dropped her percentage to .227. Lauren Stivrins added nine kids on .529 hitting and six blocks. Lindsay Krause chipped in nine kills on .368 hitting.
Nicklin Hames finished with 45 assists, 13 digs, four blocks and two kills. Lexi Rodriguez matched Hames with 13 digs while Keonilei Akana chipped in 11.
The Huskers fell behind 5-1 right away thanks in part to some shoddy passing, and that set the tone for the rest of the set. The Panthers had an answer every time Nebraska made a run.
The Huskers tied it up at 7-all thanks to two kills and two aces early from Kubik, but Pitt responded with an 8-1 stretch. The Huskers cut their deficit down to three at 16-13, and the Panthers answered again, outscoring Nebraska 9-3 the rest of the way.
Pitt hit .483 and nearly doubled Nebraska up in kills, 17 to nine, as the Huskers’ serving didn’t seem to phase the Panthers in the slightest. Nebraska hit .167 as Kubik had four of the team’s nine kills.
“I was thinking we were in trouble because Pittsburgh, they almost played a perfect game that first game,” Cook said. “But one thing we talked about, just gotta stay with it, wear them down and hang in there. And they did a great job of that, because we could have gotten discouraged pretty easily. They were doing some really high-level stuff.”
Nebraska looked like a different team in the second set, though Kubik continued to lead the way. The Huskers pulled ahead 7-4 behind three quick kills and an ace from the junior All-American. The lead hovered around three until the Huskers blew the game open with a 5-0 run including a solo stuff, a block assist and a kill by Stivrins.
Pitt cut the deficit to five a couple of times but could get no closer. Krause gave the Huskers set point with a kill, then the Panthers gave Nebraska the set with an errant attack.
The Huskers hit .440 in the set behind four more kills from Kubik. Pitt hit .161 and had five service errors.
“I think we knew what we wanted to do and we had our game plan,” Kubik said. “We just needed to settle in a little bit and stay with that. We talk about war of attrition and doing it over time for a long time, not adjusting immediately when they do something different than what we scouted. I think we were focusing on that, leaning on each other and picking up our serve-and-pass game.”
The third set was close throughout, featuring 14 ties and nine lead changes. The final tie came at 18-all as a kill from Ally Batenhorst evened it up. Then Stivrins stepped back to the service line and served five more Nebraska points to give the Huskers a 23-18 lead. The 6-foot-4 middle blocker had an ace and a back-row kill during the run, though after the match she couldn’t really remember what was going through her head.
“I think at that point everyone on our team was kind of flowing,” Stivrins said. “When you’re in that kind of state of mind, you just don’t really have much going on up there. It just kind of happens. I just looked over and got the serving zone and then just hit it, and there wasn’t much thought going into it. I knew that my team was going to figure it out once I got it over. So all I had to do was get it over.”
Nebraska played the sideout game from there as a Batenhorst kill gave the Huskers set point, then a Krause kill ended two plays later.
The Huskers only hit .167 but held Pitt to .081. Hames spread the ball around as Caffey and Krause led a balanced attack with three kills apiece.
Nebraska opened the third set with a Caffey kill, a Kenzie Knuckles ace and a Kubik kill for a quick 3-0 lead, and the Huskers held onto the advantage most of the way. Nebraska used another 3-0 run to pull ahead 11-7, and 15 consecutive sideouts followed.
Pitt broke the streak to cut the deficit to two, then scored three straight to cut it to one, then scored two straight to tight it up at 20-20. The Huskers held firm, however, as Stivrins stepped up and led a 5-2 run to close it out. The sixth-year senior had a block assist after the tie, then back-to-back kills to give Nebraska match point, then another block assist to finish it off.
Pitt out-hit Nebraska slightly, .250 to .243, but the Huskers did just enough to come out with the win. Stivrins had four kills overall in game four.
No. 1 Louisville and No. 4 Wisconsin set the bar high in the first set, producing an instant classic that went the distance. The Badgers handed the Dani Busboom Kelly-led Cardinals their first loss of the season, 25-23, 15-25, 25-21, 23-25, 15-9.
Anna Smrek, Wisconsin’s 6-foot-9 freshman that gave Nebraska so many problems in Lincoln back in October, topped that performance with a match-high 20 kills on .704 hitting. She converted 17 of her 20 swings in the first three sets into kills without an error, and she was the one who put the finishing touch on the win in the fifth.
The Badgers had a chance to close it out in four with the set tied at 23-all, but the Cardinals got a kill from Claire Chaussee and and ace from Ceci Rush to win the set and extend the match. The teams battled to a 6-all tie midway through the fifth, but a 3-0 run by Wisconsin was enough to give the Badgers control, sparking a 9-3 finish.
The Cardinals held each of Wisconsin’s top three hitters to .200 or below, but Smrek and Devyn Robinson (nine kills on 18 swings) picked up the slack as Wisconsin hit .259 and held Louisville to .230. Anna DeBeer matched Smrek with 20 kills, but she also had 11 errors and hit .184.
Now the Huskers will get a third crack at beating the Badgers on Saturday night. Wisconsin swept Nebraska in Lincoln in late October then beat the Huskers in four in Madison in late November to clinch the Big Ten title.
“This team that just competed tonight is completely different to the team that played them a couple of weeks ago and light years different to the one that played them earlier on in the season,” Stivrins said. “I think we’re more prepared and more ready than we’ve ever been, and we’re definitely excited for the challenge. We’re ready to step up.”
First serve is set for 6:30 p.m. CT on ESPN2.
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.