Nebraska’s lineup features a handful of players who have made big plays against Penn State over the last few years, but it was a newcomer to one of the game’s greatest rivalries who stepped up and delivered in the clutch.
After Penn State saved two match points in game five to cut Nebraska’s lead to one, sophomore setter Nicklin Hames went to freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik at the pin and Kubik delivered the match-sealing kill.
“Madi does everything … Madi makes people around her better,” Coach John Cook said. “She’s just so even-keeled, she’s so easy to play next to. That’s one of her gifts. Not much phases her when things aren’ going well.”
The No. 8 Huskers (18-3, 10-2 Big Ten) beat the No. 7 Nittany Lions (17-4, 10-2) 25-18, 18-25, 25-21, 21-25, 15-13 in front of a sold-out and raucous crowd of 8,373 at the Devaney Center on Saturday night.
“Last night when I walked through the hallways and I came down to talk to the team, I do radio and all that, nobody said a word to me last night, the fans that were still mingling here,” Cook said. “Tonight, people were grabbing me, every person; I probably got told ‘good luck’ 100 times in the two times I walked back and forth, doing interviews and coming down to meet with our team. You could just tell our fans were at another level tonight and they were fired up for this.”
Four straight matches and seven of the last 10 in the series have gone five sets, and Nebraska has won nine of the 10.
The Huskers hit .210 with 85 digs and 14 blocks and held Penn State to .166 hitting. The Nittany Lions had 13 blocks and four aces but also misfired on 13 serves. Nebraska won despite not recording a single ace and while missing on nine serves.
“Super match; it doesn’t get any better than that,” Cook said. “Both teams played great volleyball, both teams played really hard. Nothing but respect for Penn State.”
Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun led everyone with 20 kills on .167 hitting, seven digs and four blocks. Kubik finished with 15 kills on .227 hitting and nine digs. Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had 14 kills on .308 hitting and four blocks. Junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet chipped in 13 kills on .294 hitting, five digs and three blocks.
Kubik wasn’t the only freshman who came up big, however. Libero Kenzie Knuckles led the defensive effort with a career-high 24 digs. Sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach had a season-high nine blocks and sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller chipped in 18 digs. Hames finished with 54 assists, 22 digs and four blocks.
“I just think that Penn State’s a great team and it just showed that a lot of the work that we’ve been putting in this past week has not gone unnoticed and I was really proud of the way our team came together, because I’m sure you guys know, but we‘ve had a really rough week so it was really nice to get back out there and end on a positive note,” Stivrins said.
Penn State took the first shot with a 5-0 run that gave the Nittany Lions an early 8-4 lead. They got off to a hot start, converting six of their first nine swings into kills. After a timeout, the Huskers settled in, tying the match up at 10-10, then pulling ahead 12-11.
Kills by Kubik and Stivrins pushed the lead to 14-12, but Nebraska misfired on its next three serves from there. The Huskers sided out each time, however, and a 5-0 Nebraska run gave the Huskers a 21-15 advantage. After four straight sideouts, Stivrins gave the Huskers set point with a kill and a service error by each team closed it out.
After that 8-4 start, Nebraska held Penn State to minus-.083 hitting the rest of the way thanks in part to five blocks. The Huskers hit .406 led by Sweet’s five kills and four apiece from Sun and Kubik.
Penn State jumped out to a 4-1 lead early and maintained the edge until three straight hitting errors allowed the Huskers to tie it up at 13-13. Penn State cleaned things up and responded with a 4-0 run to take control, and the Huskers got no closer than two points the rest of the set. A 4-0 run gave Penn State set point, and after a kill by Sun the Nittany Lions finished it off.
After committing just three attack errors in the first set, the Huskers had 10 in the second set and hit .041. Penn State hit .167 and out-blocked Nebraska four to zero. Sun notched six more kills but took 18 swings and was responsible for three of those errors.
Penn State scored three of the first four points, but a successful challenge and a double-block by Sun and Stivrins allowed the Huskers to tie it up at 4-4. Nebraska took the lead 7-6 on back-to-back kills by Sun, but her attempt at a third hit the pin. After another tie, Nebraska hit Penn State with a 6-2 run to take a 14-10 lead, though Cook had to use his last challenge to score the final point as the officials missed a touch at the net.
Penn State pulled within one twice but a pair of errors, one service and one hitting, pushed it back to three at 19-16. After a timeout, Penn State got it right back with two kills before Sweet blasted one off a Nittany Lion, starting a streak of five straight sideouts. A double-block by Hames and Stivrins broke the trend and put the Huskers up 23-20.
Jonni Parker notched her 12th kill of the night but followed it up with her third service error of the set to give Nebraska set point and Hames and Schwarzenbach closed it out with a double-block. Nebraska hit .289 while Penn State hit .237. Kubik had 5 kills on 11 swings in the set.
Penn State used a 3-0 run to take an 8-4 lead again in the fourth set but Nebraska responded with a 4-1 run out of a timeout to cut it down to one. Penn State managed to hold onto its lead until Cook turned to the double-substitution with freshman setter Nicole Drewnick serving and sophomore opposite hitter Anezka Szabo in the front row, and Drewnick set up Schwarzenbach for the kill to tie it up at 15-15. Penn State scored the next two points but Nebraska responded with three in a row to take an 18-17 lead on a big kill by Sun that got the crowd on its feet.
Penn State took the lead right back, Nebraska tied it on another kill by Sun, then Penn State scored three straight to make it 22-19. Nebraska pulled within one but Penn State ended it on a 3-0 run including two aces by Keeton Holcomb.
The Nittany Lions hit .276 and had four aces while Nebraska hit .269. Sun added four kills to her match-leading total.
Sun said the talk in the huddle before game five was about getting off to a fast start.
“I think that in the previous matches we kind of gave them a few points early on and that kind of hurt us so I think that was our focus, coming out strong and attacking,” Sun said.
Penn State took the first point, but Nebraska used a 4-1 run including back-to-back kills by Kubik to take a 4-2 lead, and the Huskers never let it go. Nebraska stretched it to three at 7-4, then made it five at 10-5 with a 3-0 run.
Penn State pushed back with a 4-0 run including back-to-back-to-back blocks to pull within one, but Nebraska responded in kind with a two straight combo-blocks by Schwarzenbach and Sun.
“They blocked us three straight times, and part of that was we didn’t pass so we got in some really tough spots,” Cook said. “I told them we’re not tipping, we’re swinging, and they swung. The Penn State block was there. We were going to go down swinging if we were going to go down.”
Four straight sideouts gave Nebraska three match points at 14-11, but Penn State saved two of them, leading to a Nebraska timeout. Out of the break, Hames went to Kubik and the freshman delivered as she put down the winning kill.
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) November 3, 2019
“She’s a stud,” Sun said. “I think that we’ve known that and she proved that tonight again, and she has been proving it this whole season so far.”
Kubik had three kills and no errors on eight swings in the final frame. Nebraska hit .129 despite five blocks from the Nittany Lions. The Huskers held Penn State to six kills and .061 hitting, recording three blocks.
“I think this shows that we can dig deep and we can compete and we can win some long rallies,” Stivrins said. “I think this team is a lot stronger than we realized in the beginning of the season. We are young, but we’ve gone through so much recently and to go out there and play the way we did tonight, I’m really proud of them.”
Nebraska will have a few days to recover before a quick turnaround as the Huskers complete their three-match home stand against Northwestern on Wednesday night.
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.