LINCOLN, Neb. – No. 1 Nebraska sort of sleep-walked through its midweek win over Iowa last week, but No. 15 Penn State certainly had the Huskers’ attention on Wednesday night as Nebraska made a statement with a 25-17, 25-14, 25-22 sweep over the Nittany Lions.
“I thought it was a great match,” Coach John Cook said. “I thought our team came in really focused tonight, very well prepared, and we took Penn State’s best shot and really I think took it back to them and just competed really well. There was some really high level volleyball tonight. Every time we play Penn State it’s electric in here. Our crowd was into it, our team was into it, Penn State is a great team and it was a really fun match.”
The attendance was 8,407 for the Huskers’ penultimate home game of the regular season. The Huskers (25-1, 16-1) beat Penn State (19-9, 11-6) in five sets at University Park earlier in the month behind 19 kills apiece by Andie Malloy and Mikaela Foecke, and once again the left side hitters led the way offensively. Malloy finished with a match-high 11 kills on .400 hitting while Foecke added 10 kills on .292 hitting.
“[Junior setter] Kelly [Hunter] was really putting those guys in some great spots tonight that they could really move the ball around and see the court,” Cook said. “They were in a really good rhythm tonight; they were at Penn State as well. Kelly was setting them very well tonight.”
A big part of the outsides getting so many good opportunities was the efficiency of the middle blockers. Junior Briana Holman put up eight kills on 13 swings while senior Amber Rolfzen added six kills on 10 swings plus a match-high five blocks.
“Here’s your choice,” Cook said. “You look at our middles, our middles hit .550 combined. So you’ve got a lot of attention on them and there’s a lot of one-on-ones out there.”
Hunter led the Huskers with 36 assists and 15 digs for her sixth double-double of the season in what Cook called one of her best matches.
“She’s had a lot of really good matches this year, but I think she was really solid tonight,” Cook said.
Overall, the Huskers hit .290. Defensively, they put up an even better performance, holding the high-powered Nittany Lions to a season-low .065 hitting and 28 kills. The second set was one of Nebraska’s best single-set performances of the season considering the competition as Nebraska racked up six blocks and held Penn State to -.065 hitting.
“It was impressive,” Cook said. “Chris [Tamas] does a great job of preparing our team and implementing the game plan and working on it in practice. But it’s also a credit to our players because they have to follow it and execute it … They did a great job of staying with the game plan tonight and that’s why we were so successful to hold them to a low number.”
Nebraska is leading all major conference teams in opponent’s hitting percentage and Wednesday’s performance was just more proof of the progress the Huskers have made on defense.
“I think it just shows how hard we’ve been working on it,” Annika Albrecht said. “This entire season we’ve been working so hard on our blocking and backcourt … We knew they were going to get good touches up there [at the net] and it was so easy to read behind them.”
The defense was terrific, but the key to the sweep, according to Cook, was how the Huskers turned that defense into offense.
“I told them we’ve got to win the serve and pass battle and I think we definitely did that and I think we also won the ball-handling and digging battle,” Cook said. “We dug a lot of balls that we could transition to kills and I think that was why we were able to win those first two games pretty handily … I think the difference was defense and transition and our opportunity to swing for points compared to theirs.”
The first two sets featured just eight total lead changes and two ties as Nebraska rolled to a 2-0 lead at the intermission. The Nittany Lions offered more resistance in the third set, however, as the lead changed hands four times with 12 ties.
Trailing 22-21, Cook took a timeout to settle the team and the Huskers responded with a 3-0 run to set up match point. Following a timeout by Penn State, Albrecht stepped to the line and calmly blasted an ace to end the match.
“It was such a big game and that third game was really close,” Albrecht said. “It felt good.”
With just three games remaining in the regular season, Amber Rolfzen said she likes how the Huskers are playing.
“I think it was probably one of our best matches of the year,” Rolfzen said. “They obviously didn’t get many kills, we held them to a low hitting percentage and we just kind of stuck with everything we’ve been working on. Coach always says a lot of teams either go up or down in November and I think tonight was just a stepping stone for going up towards the end of the season.”
Nebraska will hit the road again on Saturday for a match in Iowa City against the Hawkeyes. First serve is set for 8 p.m.