No. 9 Nebraska continued to roll through the Big Ten on Saturday night, accomplishing something no other team had managed in the process: sweeping Illinois.
Behind a monster performance from Madi Kubik, the Huskers (14-3, 8-0 Big Ten) took down the Fighting Illini (12-7, 4-4) 25-19, 25-15, 25-21 in front of a crowd of 8,304 at the Devaney Center.
Kubik, the reigning co-BigTen Player of the Week, tied her season high with 19 kills and did it on a season-high .457 hitting percentage.
“We’re establishing a level of trust, that makes us feel, I don’t know, I feel invincible,” Kubik said. “There’s so much trust in each other that it’s like we know we have each other’s backs and we’ll be there every time and there’s so much freedom in that.”
Lindsay Krause chipped in seven kills on .263 hitting and three blocks. Lexi Rodriguez led the way defensively with 17 digs while Nicklin Hames added 10 digs to go with her 32 assists. Nebraska hit .267 for the match while holding the Illini to .100.
“I think it’s just really helpful that the blockers do a really good job of setting up and it makes it a lot easier for my job to just go back there and read go and get the balls that I see,” Rodriguez said. “I think in the back row, we all have a lot of trust in each other and so we know that everyone’s going to give full effort and that we’re going to do our best to not let a ball hit the floor.”
Illinois entered Saturday night leading the Big Ten in aces per set at .191, yet the Huskers held them to one ace and 11 errors. Nebraska had three aces and eight errors.
“I thought the Huskers came out and were really focused on a great game plan tonight,” Coach John Cook said. “Our block and defense were really good right out of the gate and our serving was really good. I thought one of our big challenges tonight was to handle their serves because they’re really good serving team and I thought we did a really good job of not letting them get any runs or their servers stressing us for runs. So we really did a really good job of managing the passing game and that that allowed us to play consistently at a pretty high level.”
Middle blocker Kayla Caffey missed her third straight match with a non-COVID-19 illness, but she was on the bench in street clothes on Friday night.
“She lifted today and is feeling way better, so she should be in practice Monday,” Cook said.
Callie Schwarzenbach got the start in Caffey’s place and recorded three block assists, moving into sixth place on Nebraska’s career blocks list during the rally scoring era.
The Huskers pulled ahead early in the first set thanks to a 5-0 run featuring four kills from Kubik and Akana at the service line. The run gave the Huskers a 9-3 lead, and Nebraska’s advantage bounced between three and six throughout the set until an ace from Kubik made it 20-13.
“Nicklin was pulling the ball exactly where all the hitters needed it and it was really exciting to start with the match that way,” Kubik said.
The teams traded sideouts until a 3-0 Illini run made it a four-point game at 23-19. Illinois served long out of a Nebraska timeout to give the Huskers set point, then three rallies later Illinois served long again to end it.
A late kill got Illinois back to .000 hitting after the Illini were in the negative most of the set. Nebraska only hit .121 as Illinois out-blocked the Huskers five to one. Kubik led the Huskers with six kills on 10 swings while the rest of the Huskers combined for five kills and six errors.
“Something that we’ve been really rolling with is ‘find a way,’ and I think it just kind of establishes with everyone like, ‘Hey, it might not be pretty, it might not be my best kill ever, but I’m going to find a way to get a kill and find a way to help us sideout or get a kill in transition or whatever it is,’” Kubik said. “But just make it work, kind of, and there’s no right way to do it.”
Nebraska won three of the first four rallies to take an early lead, then stretched the advantage out to 13-6 with a 3-0 run midway through the set. After a sluggish first set offensively, the Huskers terminated on 10 of their first 13 swings of game two.
Illinois pulled within five twice, but the Huskers answered the second push with a 7-2 run as Krause scored the last three points with a kill, a block assist and another kill.
Kubik added eight more kills to her tally giving her 14 on .500 hitting through two sets. After the Illini kept her off the board in the first set, Krause came alive with five kills in game two as Nebraska hit .429 as a team. Illinois hit .184 and had just one block in game two.
“It starts with passing, and then Nicklin, and I think Lindsay Krause got going a little bit,” Cook said. “We got a couple of kills out of the middle and then I think Kenzie Knuckles had a couple big kills in transition, which really helped. She can bail us out when we get into a long rally and everything’s broken down, she can come down there and she did a really nice job of managing that part tonight. So it’s a combination; when you’re doing that, it’s a total team effort and it starts with getting the ball to the setter.”
Illinois scored first in the third set to take its first lead of the night, then pulled ahead 5-2. The Huskers quickly regrouped, however, and ripped off a 10-2 run to flip it around and pull ahead 13-7. Cook subbed Lexi Sun in for Ally Batenhorst early in that run.
Neither side managed to string more than two points together the rest of the way as the Huskers cruised to the finish. Kubik closed it out with one last kill on match point.
Nebraska out-hit Illinois .242 to .105 behind five more kills from Kubik.
Up next for the Huskers is a trip to Iowa City for Nebraska’s second match against Iowa. The Huskers swept the Hawkeyes in Lincoln back on Sept. 25. After that, they’ll return home for a top-10 showdown against Purdue on Saturday night.
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.