No. 12 Nebraska followed up its best offensive performance of the season with another strong defensive effort on Sunday afternoon, sweeping Michigan State to close out a three-match home stand.
Nebraska (10-3, 4-0 Big Ten) swept the Spartans 25-16, 25-19, 25-20 while holding them to .079 hitting.
“Game one we won with our serving; we came out and really, really attacked them with serving, so that was game one,” Coach John Cook said. “And then the other two were just kind of slugfests. It was some really good volleyball.”
Michigan State’s prolific outside hitter, Sarah Franklin, finished with five kills and six errors (minus-.029 hitting). Middle blocker Kayla Caffey said the Huskers were really keying on shutting her down as she entered Sunday averaging better than 4.0 kills per set.
“I think we were just going up really big,” Caffey said. “We call it big girl block. We were just making good moves on her and reading the setter, reading the game.”
A crowd of 8,034 was on hand as Nebraska honored the 2000 and 2001 teams between sets as part of Nebraska’s Weekend of Champions. Nebraska welcomed the 1990 team back for Friday’s win over Michigan.
“Like I’ve been talking, about our theme this year is ‘Our roots run deep,’ and those are three teams that were here that there’s great tradition,” Cook said. “They had great success. They’re great people. Just to reflect on what they did is pretty cool. I heard two unbelievable speeches yesterday by Val Novak and Lindsay Peterson. Lindsay about the 2000 team and Val talked about the 1990 team, and just hearing them talk about it was just incredible. I was just blown out of my seat, the things that they talked about what they remembered, what they came up with, the insights they had. It was really powerful. I wish our team could have heard it.”
Freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez made plenty of splash plays en route to a match-high 17 digs. Sophomore defensive specialist Keonilei Akana had 10 digs and an ace and junior Kenzie Knuckles provided a spark off the bench as well with seven digs, two kills and two aces.
“We wanted to get in rallies with them because I thought we could win most of the rallies, which we did, and the longer those rallies went the better the chance we had to win them, I think,” Cook said. “Lexi Rodriguez was a big part of that, she was just getting everything up, and Kenzie Knuckles.”
Madi Kubik led the Huskers in kills for the fourth straight match, finishing with 10 on .219 hitting plus eight digs. Lindsay Krause added nine kills on .304 hitting. Lauren Stivrins logged her second straight start and chipped in seven kills on .333 hitting. Nicklin Hames fell just short of a double-double with 31 assists and nine digs.
Nebraska jumped on Michigan State from the opening serve, scoring the first three points of the match. Akana turned things up a notch with a fierce serving run. The Huskers scored six straight to pull ahead 11-2 as the Spartans struggled mightily to pass the ball.
“We call her K-Thump, because she always goes on serving run,” Kubik said. “We can trust her to go back and she trusts her serve and always gets us in a good position. We have a lot of faith in her and I think that helps her to have a lot of confidence in herself as well.”
Nebraska stretched the lead to 10 at 15-5 with a balanced attack featuring at least a kill by six different Huskers. The Huskers took their largest lead at 23-12 before Michigan State mounted a small comeback attempt, scoring four straight. However, back-to-back Spartan attack errors including a set-point block by Krause and Caffey put an end to it.
Nebraska cooled off after a hot start, hitting .184, but the Huskers held the Spartans to .024 hitting. Rodriguez led the defensive effort with eight digs including a couple of highlight-reel plays.
“It’s crucial,” Kubik said about Rodriguez’s effort. “She’s the leader of our defense and she sets the tone. That’s the Roddy we see every single day in practice and I think that showed today, which is great. It’s really important.”
The second set was more tightly contested with six ties and five lead changes early. The Huskers finally pulled ahead for good with a 6-0 run served by Hames that made it 15-10. The Spartans appeared to have cut the deficit back to one, but a successful challenge from Cook resulted in a kill from Knuckles, and a Stivrins slide kill on the next point pushed it back to four and the Huskers cruised from there.
Nebraska out-with Michigan State .279 to .098 behind five kills from Krause and four from Kubik.
Lexi Sun started the third set in place of Batenhorst and recorded a kill on the first rally. Game three followed a similar script to game two with neither side able to gain more than two points of separation until a 3-0 Nebraska run gave the Huskers a 14-11 lead.
A 3-0 Nebraska run featuring kills by Caffey, Kubik and Sun pushed the lead to 20-14. Michigan State shaved a few points off the lead down the stretch, but the Huskers held on to compete the sweep, putting an exclamation point on the win with a match point Stivrins slide kill.
Stivrins had four kills on five swings in the third after a quiet first two sets. Nebraska out-hit Michigan State .290 to .129. Sun contributed three kills on five swings and a pair of digs.
The Huskers will take Monday off before returning to the practice court to prepare for a raid trip out east. Nebraska will take on No. 14 Penn State on Friday before heading to Rutgers on Sunday.
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.