MINNEAPOLIS — For the third time in the last four years, Nebraska is headed to the national championship game.
The seventh-seeded Huskers (29-6) battled back from an 0-2 hole to take down No. 3 Illinois (32-4) in five sets at the Target Center on Thursday night, punching their ticket to Saturday’s final.
“For us, this was another Big Ten battle,” Coach John Cook said. “This is what it was like every week in the Big Ten. Illinois is a great team. I mean, they brought out the best in us. I think we brought out the best in them. It was a very entertaining, fun match to watch, whether you're a fan, a coach, a player. Crowd got into it. We were here a year ago in the fifth, beat Penn State. We're used to it. Congratulations to Illinois on a heck of a season. Chris [Tamas] has done a great job with that team.”
It was something of a bittersweet night for Cook as his team ended the season of one of his former assistants in Tamas. Cook called the rubbermatch a “15-round prize fight,” and the numbers back that description up.
Of the 207 rallies played on Thursday night, Illinois won 104 and Nebraska 103. However, it was the Huskers who took the points that mattered most as they won 22-25, 16-25, 25-23, 25-20, 15-11 in front of a sold-out crowd of 17,808, the third-highest single-session attendance in NCAA volleyball championship history.
“Nebraska is a great team,” Tamas said. “Firsthand knowledge of how they train, how hard they work, as well. I coached a couple of them for multiple years. We knew we were going to have to expect a battle. We knew they weren't going away after we won the first two sets.
“Thought we could hopefully close out that third set. They caught a couple big plays on us, kind of took control of the match in the fourth set. Back and forth there in the fifth. It's what we're used to in the Big Ten. It's a bummer we fell a little bit short. But hats off to Nebraska, the team, their team, for a good match. Again, to my team as well, for making it where we did.”
The Huskers out-hit Illinois .251 to .237. Senior outside Hitter Mikaela finished with 19 kills on .300 hitting, 11 digs and two aces. Sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun matched Foecke’s 19 kills and two aces and added 12 digs.
Senior libero Kenzie Maloney led the Huskers with 20 digs and also recorded a career-high 10 assists for her first double-double. Freshman setter Nicklin Hames and freshman defensive specialist Megan Miller finished with 19 digs apiece and Hames added 19 digs and a career-high-tying five kills.
Nebraska got off to a good start in the first set, jumping out to a 4-1 lead including three kills on three swings by three different players. Illinois settled in, however, and battled back to tie the game at 9-9.
The Huskers pulled ahead again 15-11 with a stretch that included two kills by Hames and two kills and an ace by Sun but Illinois responded with a 7-2 run to pull ahead for the first time at 18-16.
After a timeout to regroup, the Huskers put together a 4-0 run to retake the lead. Things fell apart from there, however, as Illinois closed the set on a 7-2 run to take a 1-0 lead.
Illinois’ star outside hitter Jacqueline Quade put down nine kills on 22 swings by herself while Nebraska two pins combined for 10 kills on 30 attempts. The Illini hit .269 to Nebraska’s .255.
The passing problems that plagued the Huskers over the second half of the first set carried over to the second as the Illini got off to a 6-0 start that included three aces by senior setter Jordyn Poulter and two attack errors by Nebraska. Cook burned both of his timeouts during that stretch, leaving the Huskers without a stoppage for the rest of the set.
Illinois opened the lead up even more with a 3-0 run that made it 12-4, but a 4-0 run by the Huskers cut that deficit in half at 13-9. Illinois countered with a 5-1 run to equal its biggest lead of eight at 18-10. Nebraska made one more run featuring three straight kills by sophomore opposite hitter Jazz Sweet but 19-15 was as close as the Huskers could get. After trading points, Illinois closed out the set with a 5-0 run.
Illinois out-hit Nebraska .241 to .129 in the second and won the serving battle definitively in the first two sets. The Illini had four aces without an error at the intermission while Nebraska had two aces and four errors.
All the talk in the locker room during the intermission was about getting back to playing Nebraska volleyball, something sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said the Huskers didn’t do in the first two sets.
“I think that just goes to show what this team has and that really comes from within,” Stivrins said. “I think after those first two sets, we just had to take a deep breath and refocus. We kind of got away from Nebraska volleyball. Everyone was stressed, everyone was bickering, we just couldn’t get a point for anything. I think we came back in the locker room, we talked about it as a team and we knew we were capable of so much more. So we just went out there a brand new team and said ‘forget about it, we’re going to come out with swag, we’re going to come out with energy, we’re going to act like that didn’t happen and we’re just starting over.”
Nebraska’s serving woes continued into the third set as Hames sent her first serve into the net, but Nebraska recovered to take the lead at 3-2 after kills from Foecke and Stivrins. Nebraska pulled ahead by two a few times, but Illinois tied it up at 5-5, 8-8 and 9-9.
Sun served a 4-0 run to put the Huskers up 13-9. Illinois pulled back within one before a 4-0 run served by Miller gave the Huskers an 18-13 lead. Nebraska pushed the lead to six at 20-14 before the Illini mounted a comeback, scoring nine of the next 12 points to pull ahead 23-22.
Needing a kill in the worst way, freshman setter found freshman middle and Callie Schwarzenbach put it down to tie the set at 23-all. After that, it was Foecke time. The senior notched two straight kills to extend her career and send the match to a fourth set.
Nebraska hit .298 in the third while Illinois hit an even .200. Foecke notched eight kills in the set to push her total to 15 for the match.
Illinois started strong in the third set as well, jumping out to a 5-3 lead. Nebraska rallied with a 4-0 run served by Miller, then after an Illinois point scored two more to build the lead up to 9-6. The Illini ripped off three in a row after that to tie it again and the teams went back and forth over the next several rallies.
After seven ties and and a couple of lead changes, Nebraska pulled ahead 21-18 with kills by Stivrins and Sun and an attack error by Illinois. The Illini scored two in a row to pull within one.
Then Poulter missed on her serve and Hames stepped up and put one down for an ace, giving the Huskers a 23-20 lead and drawing a timeout from Illinois. The break didn’t stop the Huskers’ momentum, however, as Nebraska closed out the set with two more kills to send the match to a fifth set.
The Huskers won the fourth set by five while getting just three swings and no kills out of Foecke. Sun led the way with six kills in game four while the middle blockers, Stivrins and Schwarzenbach, chipped in two each. The Huskers hit .206 and held the Illini to .156.
“I didn't really realize [Foecke] wasn't getting sets that game,” Sun said. “I feel like at every point, I tried to do what I could to help the team in the best way I could. If I'm getting those sets, I'm trying to swing high hands, put the ball away. I feel like as a team we did a pretty good job later in the game mixing it up as it went on.”
Despite dominating the serve game early, Illinois fell apart in that area in the fifth set, recording errors on three consecutive serves. However, the Huskers couldn’t take advantage to create any separation as the Illini managed to sideout after each one.
After seven ties, Sun put the Huskers up 8-7 at the changeover than Foecke followed it with a kill of her own to make it 9-7. Illinois battled back to tie it at 10-10 and 11-11, and appeared to do so at 12-12 as well as a swing by Mikaela Foecke sailed long.
However, Cook pulled out the green challenge card after the play — at the urging of Stivrins — and argued that there was a touch from the block. He was right.
The official overturned the call and awarded the point to Nebraska, giving the Huskers a 13-11 lead. Maloney stepped up to the service line and delivered her only ace of the match to give Nebraska match point and Hames went back to Foecke to close it out.
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) December 14, 2018
Foecke — who seems to save her best volleyball for December every season — went 4-for-4 on swings in the fifth set.
“I wish I could have the secret to what makes her go,” Cook said. “Sometimes I think, Why doesn't she play like that all year long? The best way I can explain it is that Mikaela has a very deep inner confidence. She has a deep belief in everything that she does, academically, volleyball-wise, whatever it is in life. I think it's part of her upbringing, coming from a farm where you're tough, you don't complain, you just find a way. She's got it in other DNA. She's proven it over and over and over.”
Foecke and Maloney improved to 21-1 in the NCAA Tournament with the win and will get a crack at their third national championship on Saturday.
In the first semifinal, top-seeded Stanford avenged its only loss of the season, downing fourth-seeded BYU in straight sets. The Cougars won a five-set battle back on Aug. 31 but Stanford made short work of the Cougars on Thursday night, rolling over them 25-15, 25-15, 25-18 in less than an hour-and-a-half.
Stanford recorded 17 blocks and held the Cougars to -.026 hitting. Stanford star Kathryn Plummer led the way with 12 kills on .300 hitting while middle blocker Audriana Fitzmorris added 11 kills on .375 hitting and nine blocks. Middle blocker Tami Alade finished with 14 blocks. The Cougars finished the season 31-2 while the Cardinal improved to 33-1.
First serve for Saturday’s championship match is set for 8 p.m. CST 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.