No. 7 Nebraska flexed its defensive muscles once again in a sweep over Northwestern on Wednesday night.
The Huskers (19-3, 11-2 Big Ten) tamed the Wildcats (10-15, 1-2) 25-18, 25-7, 25-18 in front of a crowd of 8,026 at the Devaney Center. Nebraska held Northwestern to minus-.054 hitting, the first time all season Northwestern has hit in the negative and a season-low for Nebraska’s defense.
“It was a really good effort by our team, block and defensively and serving,” Coach John Cook said. “We really suffocated Northwestern; they just had a really hard time killing the ball. We had a great effort on that part tonight. As my captains informed me, we did get a little squirrelly at times and we had to rein that back in a little bit, some easy plays, we kind of got sloppy and let up a little bit at times. But Wednesday, late night and it’s another win in the Big Ten. We’ll take it.”
The Huskers hit .326 as sophomore setter Nicklin Hames spread the ball around to four different primary hitters. Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun led the way with 11 kills and just one error on .455 hitting. Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik had 10 kills on .292 hitting and nine digs. Junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet added 10 kills on .412 hitting and and six blocks while junior middle blocker Lauren Stivirns chipped in 10 kills on .353 hitting and tied her season high of eight blocks.
“It’s nice when you just feel like you can flow in your offense and move the ball around and get everyone opportunities,” Hames said.
Hames finished with 40 assists and nine digs while freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles posted a match-high 12 digs. Nebraska recorded 13.5 blocks with four different players recording at least four block assists.
“It’s really good to see that we’re improving every single time in block and defense because we take a lot of pride in that and we work on it a lot in practice, and for it to show in a game is super cool,” Hames said. “At the beginning of October and through October, we weren’t really getting a lot of blocks. We had 13, which is pretty awesome.”
Nebraska jumped out to a 5-1 start, but mistakes allowed the Wildcats to hang round for a while. The Huskers only led 11-9 after the first 20 rallies thanks to six kills and four errors on 17 swings (.118 hitting) and two service errors.
Nebraska cleaned things up form there, hitting .333 the rest of the way. The Huskers won 10 of the next 15 rallies to take a 21-14 lead. The Wildcats made a brief run late, pulling within five after a 3-0 run, but Nebraska used a timeout to regroup and got kills from Kubik and Stivrins to close it out.
The Huskers held freshman Temi Thomas-Ailara, the Big Ten’s kills leader, off the board until she notched two kills during that late 3-0 run. She had two kills and five errors on 13 swings in the first set.
Nebraska hit .229 and held Northwestern to .000. Kubik and Sweet led the Huskers with four kills apiece and Sweet did it on just six attempts.
The Huskers dominated the second set from start to finish. Hames served Nebraska to a 4-0 lead out of the gates with all four points coming on Northwestern attack errors, and it didn’t get much better for the Wildcats the rest of the way. A 5-0 run served by Knuckles pushed Nebraska’s lead to 11-2 and the Huskers continued to build on that throughout the set, leading to their biggest margin of victory in a set so far this season.
Nebraska hit .538 with 15 kills and just one error on a Northwestern block.
“It’s awesome,” Hames said about their second-set efficiency. “It means that our hitters are taking great swings and I’m putting the ball in good places for them to take those good swings. I thought every hitter swung really well tonight. It’s good for me; I like seeing that number because our goal is always to be above .300.”
The Huskers recorded four blocks on their side and held the Wildcats to minus-.129 hitting with four kills and eight errors. Kubik terminated on four of her six swings in the set and Sun added four kills to her tally as well.
A service error and two attack errors allowed Northwestern to take a 5-3 lead early in the third set, but Nebraska responded with a 9-0 run featuring Knuckles at the service line and four kills and two blocks by Stivrins.
Knuckles misfired on her ninth serve and Northwestern followed it up with an ace, but the Huskers ripped off the next five points to push their lead to 17-7. Nebraska pulled ahead by 11 a couple of times including on match point, but a 5-0 run by Northwestern featuring four blocks and an ace by the Wildcats delayed the inevitable. Cook called a timeout during that stretch to address his team as the players got a little too loose for his liking near the end. Cook said he’s struggled at times to find the middle ground between letting them have their fun and keeping them locked in.
“I wanted to have a teaching moment for them,” Cook said. “What if we were playing in the Final Four? Would we be acting like that? You can’t play the score, it doesn’t matter your opponent, you’ve got to be playing every point like it’s a national championship point. That’s the mindset we have to have right now. So that was the teaching moment that they got tonight. But any time you hold a Big Ten team to zero or negative hitting percentage, that is a great effort, and they’ve got some nice hitters.”
Sweet finally finished off the sweep on Nebraska’s sixth match point, tooling Thomas-Ailara for her 10th kill.
The Huskers hit .265 in the third and held Northwestern to minus-.032. Stivrins led the Huskers with six kills but also hit into the Northwestern block three straight times during that run at the end of the set.
Thomas-Ailara finished with five kills and seven errors on 31 attempts (minus.-065 hitting).
“She’s been out for a couple games, but Nicklin blocked her early a couple times and then she started going sharp cross-court and got a couple kills, and then we made an adjustment on that,” Cook said. “Kenzie dug her several times … We did a nice job on her and made adjustments as she did.”
Nebraska will hit the road this weekend to take on Iowa on Saturday. First serve is set for 7 p.m. on BTN+.
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.