Fifth-seeded Nebraska earned its rematch with No. 4 Wisconsin, sweeping 12th-seeded Hawaii in a round-of-16 matchup at the Wisconsin Field House on Friday afternoon.
Nebraska is the only team to make it to the Elite Eight in each of the past eight season.
The Huskers (28-4) took down the Rainbow Wahine 29-27, 25-22, 25-19 as Jazz Sweet carried them early and Lexi Sun took over late. Nebraska hit .312, recording just 10 attack errors, and held Hawaii to .192.
“First of all, much congratulations to Hawaii, Robyn [Ah Mow], Angelica [Ljungqvist], her assistant,” Coach John Cook said. “They’ve done a great job, they have a great team. I was really impressed in just preparing for them, the talent they have and how they’ve used it all year. They’ve had a great season and it was an honor to play Hawaii, with their fans and just the tradition.
“I thought our team made some great adjustments as the match went on. I think winning the close game in game one gave us a lot of momentum that got us game two and then it was a battle in game three. I thought we made really good adjustments as the match went on and we’re really, really happy to get out of that 3-0.”
Sun finished with 14 kills on .619 hitting, nine digs, two blocks and an ace. Sweet added 12 kills on .345 hitting and three blocks.
“I think we were just attacking as a team,” Sun said. “That was kind our mindset going into it and we were attacking with our serves and passing and hitting especially. I think all the hitters, we were all attacking tonight and that helped us out.”
Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames recorded 36 assists, eight digs, three kills on six swings, two aces and a block. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles notched a match-high 14 digs.
After alternating points through the first handful of rallies, Hawaii got back-to-back kills to take a 6-4 lead and the Huskers spent most of the set playing from behind. The Rainbow Wahine led by three seven different times before Hames took over, giving the Huskers its first lead at 17-16 with a 4-0 run. Hames had a kill, two aces and an assist to Sun during that run.
Hawaii scored the next two points to retake the lead then pulled ahead by two at 21-19, but the Huskers tied it up thanks to a kill and a Hawaii attack error. The teams traded sideouts until Hawaii earned set point at 24-23, drawing a timeout from Cook.
When play resumed, Hawaii served long then Nebraska got a kill from Sun to earn its own set point. Hawaii saved two set points to tie it up at 26-all then pulled ahead with a block, but the Huskers closed the set on a 3-0 run with a kill from Hames, a double-block by Sweet and middle blocker Lauren Stivrins and an errant swing by Hawaii.
“I just think we went back to the basics,” Stivrins said. “We got really into it towards the end. We were kind of slow to get started. I think just the way we’ve been preparing all week helped us get through that. I think our block, we started getting a lot of good touches and Jazz started shutting them down, so that helped a lot. We were taking big rips. We weren’t tipping, we were just going after it.”
After the Rainbow Wahine hit nearly .350 midway through the set, Nebraska held Hawaii to just over .200 the rest of the way to pull off the comeback. Hawaii hit .280 overall with 22 kills. Nebraska hit .326 with 17 kills but just three attack errors. Sweet led the Huskers with 6 kills and was in on both of Nebraska’s blocks.
Hawaii took the first point of the second set but the Huskers ripped off a 6-0 run after that with Sun at the service line to take a big lead early. Hawaii quickly erased the deficit with a 4-0 run, however, to pull within one at 10-9. Nebraska pushed the lead back to three a couple of times before Hawaii tied it up at at 14-all then pulled ahead 16-15.
After trading sideouts, Nebraska ripped off a 5-0 run with freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik serving to pull ahead 21-17. Nebraska looked to be firmly in control from there, taking a 24-19 lead, but Hawaii saved three set points and forced Cook to call a timeout with the lead down to two. When play resumed, Hames received a pass tight to the net and Skyler Williams reached over and blocked her set attempt, which is illegal, giving Nebraska a 2-0 lead at the intermission.
After recording just three errors in the first set, Nebraska misfired seven times in the second set and hit .120 overall. However, the defense picked it up and forced 10 attack errors by Hawaii as the Rainbow Wahine hit minus-.033. Sweet, Sun and Kubik each recorded three kills in the set.
Nebraska got off to another great start in game three, taking a 5-1 lead early, but once again Hawaii erased the deficit quickly, tying the set at 8-all. Nebraska got a kill from Stivrins and an attack error from Hawaii to take a 10-8 lead it would not relinquish.
Hawaii kept it close throughout until Nebraska made one last surge to close it out, scoring seven of the last nine points. Sun completed the sweep with a kill, capping arguably her best postseason performance as a Husker.
Nebraska hit .457 in the third set with 16 kills and no errors. Hawaii hit .244. Sun had seven kills in the third while Sweet, Kubik and Stivrins chipped in three kills apiece.
The Badgers swept 13th-seeded Teas A&M 25-20, 25-17, 25-12 earlier on Friday behind 14 kills on 21 swings from Big Ten Player of the Year Dana Rettke. Wisconsin swept Nebraska twice during the regular season and took home the Big Ten title.
“We’ve played them twice before and we’ve been so close both times,” Stivrins said. “I think the reasons we lost the previous games was because we weren’t attacking. I think we’ve grown so much since then and I’m excited to see what our team can do. Our servings’s been causing fits for other teams so I think if we come with that same aggression from the service line, that will give us the confidence to take big rips as a team.”
First serve for Saturday’s Regional Final is set for 5 p.m. on Saturday 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.