No. 10 Nebraska completed the season sweep over Illinois on Thursday and punched its ticket to the regional final by beating the Illini 3-0 for the third time this season.
The Huskers (24-7) outplayed the Illini (22-12) across the board in a 25-12, 25-21, 25-17 win in the regional semifinal down in Austin, Texas. Their reward is a rematch with No. 2 Texas. The Longhorns sent Nebraska home in the regional final fo the 2020-21 spring season, less than eight months ago.
Nebraska hit .260, its third straight match above .250. The Huskers had hit below .215 in their last 10 regular season matches.
Kayla Caffey dominated the last two sets to finish tie 11 kills on .529 hitting and five blocks. Madi Kubik finished straight to tie Caffey with 11 kills on .290 hitting.
“Steady Eddie,” assistant coach Jaylen Reyes said of Kubik during his post-match radio interview. “We need her to pass and we need her to play defense and serve and obviously she’s going to get some sets, and she’s becoming a really, really nice volleyball player. I think she’s probably one of the best six-rotation outside hitters in the country. I think on Saturday, we’re going to watch Logan Eggleston and Madi Kubik. In my opinion, those are two out of the best six-rotation outside hitters in the country. Saturday night’s going to be fun.”
Lindsay Krause started strong and chipped in eight kills on .429 hitting plus three blocks. Keonilei Akana led the defensive effort with 13 digs. Nicklin Hames added 10 digs to go with her 33 assists and one ace. Lauren Stivrins and Kenzie Knuckles served up three aces apiece as the Huskers finished with eight aces and just four service errors.
After hitting .331 in a four-set win over No. 7 Kentucky in the second round, the Illini hit .088 on Thursday. Part of that was the absence of senior opposite hitter Megan Cooney (illness), who was second on the team in kills per set at 3.03 on the season. Cooney had 17 kills on .302 against the Wildcats. The Huskers learned of Cooney’s absence when she wasn’t out there for warm-up prior to the match and took advantage of it to load up against Terry Raina, who finished with five kills and nine errors after lighting up the Wildcats for 27 kills on .321 hitting.
“We knew that going into this game, we were going to have to thump our serves,” Stivrins told ESPNU’s crew after the match. “They’re a really offensively strong team and so the only way to do that is to kind of get them out of a rhythm and make sure their setter can’t get into a rhythm and I think we did a good job of that tonight and just staying on top of our game plan and focusing on our side of the net.”
Nebraska got off to a good start, using two kills, a block, an ace and a service error from Illinois to take a 5-1 run. The Illini pulled within one at 6-5 and 7-6, but a 4-0 Huskers run gave Nebraska an 11-7 lead.
The Illini scored two in a row to cut the lead in half, but the Huskers blew the game wide open with a 7-0 run featuring Stivrins at the service line. She had two aces during the run, helping the Huskers double the Illini up. The Huskers also closed the set on a 6-0 win with Knuckles at the line.
The Huskers held the Illini to minus-.057 hitting with 10 attack errors. Nebraska hit .250, but most of that was Krause as she had four kills on five swings. The rets of the Huskers had five kills on .130 hitting as a group.
Illinois got the better of things early on in set two, using a 3-0 run to pull ahead 6-3. Half of those points came on Nebraska track errors. The Illinois used a 4-0 run including three kills to pull ahead 12-6 and draw Nebraska’s first timeout.
The lead didn’t last long, however. The Huskers recorded five straight kills — three by Caffey — and then Hames tied it up at 12-12 with an ace. Then three more kills — two by Krause — gave the Huskers a 15-13 lead, and they never looked back.
Leading 19-17, Stivrins stepped up to the service line once again and orchestrated a 5-0 run. Illinois saved four set points, leading to a Nebraska timeout, but out of the break Batenhorst terminated to give the Huskers a 2-0 match lead.
Nebraska hit .263 behind five kills on 10 swings from Caffey. Krause went 3-for-3 in the set to give her seven kills on her first eight swigs. The Illini hit .258, but the Huskers had six more kills and an 5-2 edge in service points.
The third set featured five ties and four lead changes in the first 20 rallies. Illinois made the first push as a 4-0 run gave the Illini a 13-10 advantage. The Huskers quickly turned the tables with an 8-1 run that included six kills and two aces, and they controlled the action the rest of the way.
Nebraska hit .263 and held Illinois to .083. Kubik led the way with five kills while Caffey added four more.
Earlier in Austin, the Longhorns (27-1) pulled off a reverse sweep (29-25, 20-25, 25-22, 25-9, 15-9) against No. 15 Washington (26-5) to make it to Saturday. Texas won for of the final five rallies in set three to avoid a sweep then dominated the last two games. Star outside hitter Logan Eggleston finished with 20 kills on .441 hitting, 13 digs and six blocks.
“I think we have to play our best and we have to try to make them play our game,” Reyes said about Saturday’s match. “So if we play the hit high ball, physical at the net, that’s going to be their game. We were the best serving and passing team in the Big Ten if you put them together. That’s why for me tonight, we served it really well but we need to pass, and we didn’t pass as well as we’d like to tonight. Illinois served it well but Texas does as well. So we call it thump and dime. We have to thump and dime. If we don’t thump and dime, we’re going to kind of play into their hands.
“So serving and passing is the start and then just trying to make sure we can get in front and try to take away some of the things their left sides, Skylar Fields and Logan Eggleston, like to do. They’re two phenomenal athletes and phenomenal volleyball players and they have so much range. You’re not going to take away everything. Let’s just see if we can try to make them a little bit less efficient. But the best way to do that is to serve it.”
Nebraska and Texas will play in the night cap on Saturday with the first serve scheduled for 9 p.m. 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.