No. 3 Nebraska opened Big Ten play with a sweep over Michigan State on Friday, though Coach John Cook said the match left the Huskers with plenty to improve on moving forward.
Nebraska (9-1, 1-0) beat the Spartans (9-3, 0-1) 25-15, 25-19, 25-23 at the Devaney Center.
“It’s nice to get our first win in the Big Ten,“ Cook said. “We’ve got 19 more matches; we’ve got to play better. I thought we came out played really focused, a great first game, and then we just lost our focus and started playing some ugly volleyball. The Huskers have got to learn they can’t just go by one game and set their tone from that and we’re going to have to clean up a lot of stuff in the next 22 hours.”
The win was career No. 800 for Cook, and Athletic Director Trev Alberts presented him with a commemorative belt buckle after the match. Cook is the 19th coach in NCAA Division I history to reach that milestone and the sixth active coach to do so.
“That was very nice of Trev or whoever thought of that idea,” Cook said. “Right now, that’s a very meaningful gift to honor something that I really don’t care about. As I told John Baylor, I’m still 500 behind Russ [Rose]. But that was really meaningful because typically they just give you a volleyball and it ends up in a closet somewhere. That is something that will be very, very meaningful to me and I really, really appreciate that and the thought behind it … I will really cherish that and that will mean a lot. It’s got a little stand for it, so it’s really cool. Player players loved it. Bud’s happy tonight.”
The current group of Huskers have only been with Cook for a small fraction of those 800 wins, but junior Anni Evans said she was grateful to be a part of the accomplishment.
“I think it was really cool to be a part of this benchmark for him,” Evans said. “He’s one of the greatest coaches to ever do it and he is constantly learning. I think that’s something that’s very unique about him is he has been coaching for a good amount of time but he still is very eager to learn more about the game and I think that shows every day in practice. He wants to learn and he wants us to be better every single day. So it was really awesome to get to share this moment with him.”
Nicklin Hames missed her second straight match, and although Ally Batenhorst warmed up and was available after missing the previous three with an injury, Cook stuck with the same lineup and system the Huskers used in their sweep at Kentucky.
Madi Kubik led the way with 14 kills on .212 hitting and one ace. Four other Huskers finished with six kills while Michigan State managed to hold Whitney Lauenstein to five kills on .000 hitting. Lindsay Krause scored her six kills on .429 hitting as she was the lone Husker attacker without an error.
Kennedi Orr got her second straight start at setter, but Evans led the Huskers with 18 assists off the bench as Nebraska hit .224 overall.
“If setters start becoming inconsistent, it’s hard to keep a good rhythm, and that’s one of the challenges in a 6-2,” Cook said. “Setters are coming in and out and they’ve got to be consistent in their three rotations. They’re basically in there to win three rotations, side out three times and then get out. I’m sure we lost a lot more points in Kennedi’s rotations tonight than Anni’s, and we have to be better. She has to be better … They had a great week of practice, so she has to trust it.”
Michigan State hit .170, though Cook said the Huskers’ defensive performance was just “OK.” Lexi Rodriguez led the way with 13 digs.
“When a setter dumps five balls in six attempts, that’s not a great effort,” Cook said. “That just tells you right there, and we get blocked nine times in three games on balls that we should cover, that’s not a great effort. It’s not my opinion, there are your stats right there. I thought we dug some balls tonight defensively. We missed some digs. Lexi made a good adjustment on where they were hitting. So anyway, I just thought we were OK.”
Michigan State took a 3-2 lead early in set one, but Nebraska surged ahead with an 8-1 run as the Huskers converted six of their first nine swings into kills. Kubik capped the run with an ace to put Nebraska up 10-4.
The Huskers doubled up the Spartans at 16-8, the pushed the lead to nine a few times before a Spartan attack error on set-point sealed the 10-point win for Nebraska.
Nebraska out-hit Michigan State .379 to .167 as the Spartans dug just six of the Huskers’ 29 swings. Kubik led the way with five kills on eight attempts. Michigan State misfired form the service line five times without an ace in the first set.
Nebraska jumped ahead early in set two as well with a 6-1 run that made it 8-3 Huskers. Nebraska pushed the lead to six a couple of times before the Spartans settled in and cut it down to three at 16-13. Sensing the shift in momentum, the Devaney Center upped its volume and helped create a Michigan State service error, sparking a 4-1 run to push the lead back to six.
Michigan State dug in from there as Nebraska continued to struggle a bit on offense, scoring three in a row to make it 20-17. After trading sideouts, Nebraska closed the set on a 4-1 run including two kills and a set-point block assist from Bekka Allick.
“Being able to make those moves that you work all week long on, it’s just really reassuring,” Allick said. “I just think it’s a really good mojo for the team, just being able to also close on those things we’ve been working on as a team.”
Nebraska hit just .195 in the second set and had more attack errors (eight) than Michigan State had kills (six). The Spartans hit .154. Add Nebraska’s five service errors and the Huskers scored 13 of Michigan State’s 19 points in the set.
The Huskers used an early 6-1 run in set two as well. Allick capped the run with a kill, partially losing her headband in the process. After the point, she took the headband off and twirled it in the air in celebration, and a Michigan State timeout gave her time to get it back into place on her head.
Seven straight sideouts followed before the Spartans broke the streak with a block on Lauenstein to make it 9-7 Huskers. Michigan State cut it down to one twice, but Nebraska responded with a 6-1 run including four kills from Kubik to create a cushion once again at 17-11.
The Spartans made one last push with a 6-0 run to tie it at 22-all, but Evans checked back in for one rotation in the front row, replacing Lauenstein while Orr remained in the back row, and found Allick for a kill. Maggie Mendelson replaced Orr for the next point and Evans set her for a kill as well.
Michigan State saved one match point with a kill, but Evans went to Kubik and the senior delivered a kill off the block to complete the sweep.
“I think a huge emphasis this team has had is ‘two points better’ and just to win set by two points, and that’s something we kind of struggled with last year,” Evans said. “So no matter how ugly it is, we just need to really fall back on each other. Coming into the game, I knew my teammates trusted me and I trusted them. So it didn’t matter what the score was, I knew they were going to help me out and I was going to help them out. So I think no matter how we win by two points, we just need to find ways to win by two points, and we did that there.”
Michigan State out-hit Nebraska .184 to .135 in the third but offset that with six service errors and a ball-handling error. Kubik had six of Nebraska’s 12 kills in the game.
Nebraska has a quick turnaround and will have to clean things up as No. 7 Ohio State will visit the Denver Center for a 7 p.m. start on Nebraska Public Media.
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.