Northwestern took a set off Nebraska for the first time since Nov. 2, 2013, but the Huskers rebounded to close out the Wildcats in four sets and open Big Ten play 1-0 on Wednesday night.
The Huskers (7-3) took down the Wildcats (5-7) in Evanston 25-21, 25-21, 23-25, 25-16. Nebraska hit .308 as a team, its second-highest total of the season. Northwestern hit .215.
“When you’re on the road, these teams are not going to quit,” Coach John Cook said on his post-game interview on the Huskers Radio Network. “We let game three get away from us a little bit. They made some great plays and we kind of lost a heartbreaker … That was great resiliency and tonight I thought Nicklin [Hames] really led and was keeping us engaged and fighting.
“I thought Madi [Kubik] was doing a little bit of that too and [Kenzie Knuckles], she does so much for us with her fighting spirit and just competing. That’s why they named her captain, and I just thought she made some big plays tonight and just brought an intensity to our side, that we were going to compete tonight and fight for every point.”
After promising to narrow down the rotation and settle on a consistent lineup, Cook rolled with Kubik and freshman Ally Batenhorst at outside hitter while freshman Lindsay Krause got the start at opposite hitter. That trio combined for 42 kills on .330 hitting.
“We needed to come out with a lot of fire, especially coming off the last three weeks, and I think that sense of urgency was kind of there throughout the match,” Kubik said during an interview on Big Ten Network after the match. “I feel like we just need to keep looking to each other and keep that rolling.”
However, it was the outside hitter who didn’t get the start — or play at all in the first three sets — who sparked the team to victory in game four. Senior Lexi Sun checked in off the bench for defensive purposes in the fourth set and helped the Huskers take control after a slow start.
Kubik finished with a match- and season-high 19 kills on .296 hitting and chipped in nice digs. Krause added a career-high 15 kills on .500 hitting. Middle blocker Kayla Caffey recorded 12 kills on .647 hitting. Keonilei Akana led the defensive effort with 13 digs while Hames added 11 digs to go with her 45 assists and two aces.
Nebraska got off to a hot start, jumping out to a 3-0 lead as the Huskers’ first three swings all went down for kills.
Northwestern rallied to pull ahead 9-8, but Nebraska countered with a 3-0 run including a pair of kills by Krause. Northwestern tied it at 11-all, but the Huskers eventually pulled away. Nebraska used a 4-0 run to take its largest lead at 19-14 and the Huskers cruised from there. Kubik closed out the set with a well-placed kill in the back right corner.
Nebraska hit .382 behind Kubik’s six kills while Krause added five of her own. However, Northwestern also hit .321.
Northwestern pulled ahead 4-2 to start the second set, but the Huskers settled in from there and ripped off an 8-1 run with the only Wildcat point coming on a Husker service error. The Wildcats got a couple of points back, but Nebraska responded with a 4-0 run to stretch the lead to 14-7.
Northwestern fought back from there, using a 5-1 run to get back into the game. Both teams traded mini runs the rest of the way as Northwestern cut the deficit all the way down to one at 22-21. However, out of a timeout, Batenhorst put down back-to-back kills and Callie Schwarzenbach stuffed a Wildcat on set point.
Nebraska hit .289 behind five kills from Batenhorst and four from Caffey. Northwestern hit .237.
Nebraska scored the first two points of set three and maintained a lead until the Huskers managed to put together a 5-0 run featuring Knuckles at the service line that gave the Huskers the lead at 12-10.
Northwestern tied it up at 12-12, and four more ties followed before the Wildcats managed to pull ahead 19-16 thanks to a 3-0 run. Northwestern pushed the lead to four a couple of times before the Huskers rallied to cut the deficit to one at 23-22, drawing a timeout from the Wildcats.
Out of the break, Leilani Dodson put down a kill to give the Wildcats a couple of set points. Nebraska saved one of them with a kill by Caffey and appeared to have tied it up on a kill by Batenhorst, but a successful challenge overturned the call and gave Northwestern a 25-23 win.
Northwestern out-hit Nebraska .316 to .265 despite six kills from Kubik and four apiece from Krause and Caffey.
Northwestern started strong once again in the fourth set, racing out to a 5-1 lead. A kill from Kubik made it 7-4 Northwestern and Cook turned to Sun for the first time. The senior replaced Batenhorst and immediately recorded a block assist.
Kubik’s kill and Sun’s block sparked an 11-1 run for the Huskers including seven straight with Anni Evans at the service line. Evans finally missed on her seventh serve and Northwestern got a kill after that, but the Huskers responded with a 4-0 run to pull ahead 18-10 and cruised to the finish. Kubik closed it out with her fourth kill of the set on match point.
Nebraska hit .296 as Kubik, Krause and Caffey combined for nine kills on 15 swings without any errors. Northwestern hit minus-.032. Sun didn’t record a kill but had three block assists.
“Lexi, in my opinion, when she’s dialed in is the best left-side blocker in the country,” Cook said. “We were getting lit up over there in what we call the red zone, so I said ‘Lexi, you’ve got to go in and shut this down,’ and she did. You saw when she did that they kind of fell apart because they were really, really hurting us on hitting over there behind the setter.”
After the match, Nebraska players and coaches shared a moment with former teammate Megan Miller who transferred to Northwestern after the 2019 season. Miller, the Wildcats’ starting libero, lost her mom earlier this year, and the Huskers brought her flowers as they took turns embracing her.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Kubik said. “I just think that we all care about her and love her so much and we’re happy to see that she’s so successful. Obviously, we wish we were still teammates with her but it’s just great to see her and fun to play against past teammates.”
Nebraska will return home to host Iowa on Saturday afternoon. The Hawkeyes opened conference play with a five-set loss to Illinois.
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.