No. 6 Nebraska secured a Senior Night sweep over Maryland on Saturday night at the Devaney Center thanks in large part to big performances by Nebraska’s two senior starters and co-captains.
The Huskers (24-6, 15-5) took down the Terrapins (18-14, 9-11) 25-13, 25-10 and 25-18.
Outside hitter Mikaela converted 16 of her 26 swings into kills while committing just one error, her second-highest hitting percentage of the season (.577). She chipped in seven digs and two blocks as well. Libero Kenzie Maloney finished with a match-high 11 digs and three aces.
Back-up setter Brooke Smith, Nebraska’s other senior, said the underclassmen decorate the locker room with balloons and streamers for Senior Night, but the Huskers didn’t get caught up in the emotions of the day.
“I don’t think we really approached the game differently, but I would say in the locker room before it was a little more fun, we were more loose and kind of just going with the flow instead of being so serious,” Maloney said. “But obviously when we stepped on the court it was focused and just focusing on winning the game instead of it being senior night.”
Prior to the match, Maloney’s younger sister, Kimberly, sang the national anthem.
“It was awesome,” Maloney said. “It was a surprise so I was kind of nervous for her but she did really good and I love listening to her sing, so it was a good surprise.”
Cook said that director of operations Lindsay Peterson was the one who orchestrated the younger Maloney singing.
“At some point a long time ago, it was talked about and then Lindsay made it happen,” Cook said. “She was up in our offices warming up right before I came down for the match. That was a lot of pressure going out there; she nailed it, too. That was really cool. Kenzie was crying so I was worried, ‘Great, here we go, she’s going to start shanking balls now.’”
The Huskers hit .414 for the match while holding the Terps to .021. Erika Pritchard, the Big Ten’s kills leader, finished with 7 kills and four errors while middle blocker Katie Myers had three kills and three errors.
“I thought our team came out really focused, dialed in tonight,” Cook said. “We prepared really well for Maryland and did a great job on both their big hitters, Pritchard and Myers, and I just thought we played some really good volleyball tonight.”
Nebraska held a nine-to-seven edge in blocks and a 48-to-29 edge in digs. Six different players finished with four or more kills while freshman setter Nicklin Hames added three of her own to go with 32 assists, seven digs and an ace. Sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had eight kills on .500 hitting and a match-high six blocks.
“I thought it was just a lot of fun,” Foecke said. “I thought we went out and executed really well tonight. You always see senior nights can go one way or the other, either poor execution or great, and I thought the team came out really focused tonight and despite all the distractions, as Coach would say, we played a great game.”
Nebraska jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first set and never looked back. The Huskers continued to pour it on, building up a 13-4 lead featuring kills from seven different players as the Terrapins burned through both of their timeouts.
Nebraska’s lead never dipped below eight the rest of the way and peaked at 23-10. The Huskers gave a few points away before Foecke finished it off with her seventh kill of the set on her eighth swing.
Nebraska out-hit the Terrapins .500 to too .065 and recorded four blocks in the first set.
The break between games didn’t cool the Huskers down at all as Maloney served a 9-0 run including two aces that put the Huskers up 11-1. The teams went back and forth from there as Maryland couldn’t draw any closer than nine and Nebraska finished off the set on a 5-1 run. Freshman defensive specialist Megan Miller sealed the win with an ace to the corner of the court on Maryland’s side.
After a hot first set, Nebraska managed to improve its percentages on both offense and defense, out-hitting Maryland .542 to .043. Stivrins led the Huskers with four kills in the set.
Maryland notched the first two ties of the match at 1-1 and 2-2 before the Huskers took control with a 7-2 run. This time, however, the Terrapins kept it close for most of the set. Nebraska built its lead up to as much as six at 13-7 before Maryland put together a 6-2 run that made it 15-13 and led to Nebraska’s first timeout of the match. After committing just four attack errors total in the first two sets, Nebraska had five through the first 25 rallies of the third set.
Whatever Cook said during the break seemed to work as Nebraska reeled off a 5-0 run with Maloney at the service line once again to pull ahead 20-13. With a 22-14 lead, Cook sent Smith in for Hames to finish off the match and the senior walked onto the court to a standing ovation.
“I definitely do feel the love from the fans and they always give me a warm welcome,” Smith said. “There’s no place like Nebraska and the fans truly make it special.”
The fans weren’t the only ones who got fired up when Smith checked in. The players got in on the excitement as well.
“When she came in, you could see the reaction from our team,” Cook said. “That says everything about the relationship and the role and what they think of Brooke. That was pretty special.”
Maryland put together a 4-1 run after Smith checked in but the Huskers scored the final three points of the match to finish off the sweep. One of those points was a kill by Foecke off a set by Smith.
“It felt great for me,” Smith said about that play. “She’s someone I’ve been able to count on on and off the court for years now and so I just think that was a cool experience for me. I love watching her crush balls.”
Nebraska’s offense came back to earth, hitting just .242, but the defense picked up the slack and held the Terrapins to -.024. Foecke put down six more kills in the third set and Maloney added five more digs.
After the match, the Huskers held their Senior Night ceremony with most of the 8,139 fans sticking around to celebrate Foecke, Maloney and Smith.
“What’s going through my mind is it’s almost surreal that there are 8,000 people or close to it sending these seniors off, showing their appreciation,” Cook said about the post-match scene. “It’s surreal. It’s hard for me to even imagine or believe it because it’s not going on anywhere else and how loyal our fans are and how supportive they are and what it might mean to those seniors and their families, it’s surreal. I’ve been doing this 19 years and every year it’s just like ‘wow.’ This is unbelievable.”
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) November 25, 2018
Nebraska will learn its NCAA Tournament fate Sunday night during the selection show at 7:30 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.