Step one of Nebraska’s journey back to the Final Four is complete as the Huskers swept Hofstra in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Devaney Center Friday night.
The Huskers (25-6) won 25-19, 25-12, 25-16 in front of a sold-out crowd of 8,358.
“I was really impressed with Hofstra game one,” Coach John Cook said. “They came to play and played fearless and did some really nice things. Then they settled down a little bit, we settled down a little bit and I just thought we played some really good volleyball in games two and three. Congratulations to Hofstra for getting here; this is the second time they’ve been here this decade and they do a really nice job and they played some really good volleyball. I think they did some things against us that we prepared for and they still did it, so it was a really good wake-up for us on how disciplined we have to be and how we have to execute.”
Sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins led the way with 12 kills on .500 hitting, three blocks, two digs, and an ace. She notched four kills in each set.
“I think Lauren’s awesome,” Cook said. “I’ve been talking to Lauren about being a leader and she leads by her energy, how she plays, how she competes, how hard she works to get up to get the ball and she makes Nicklin [Hames] feel invincible setting her because Nicklin can miss it and Lauren’s still going to do something with it. That’s what the great middles can do.”
Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke finished with nine kills on .409 hitting and tied her career high with six blocks. She also chipped in six digs and two aces. Sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun added nine kills and seven digs in her first postseason match at the Devaney Center.
“I think it’s always fun to play in Devaney,” Sun said. “I think that we kind of felt a little extra energy tonight. I think the fans were excited and we were excited too. It’s fun. I’m excited to get another opportunity tomorrow to play in the tournament here. We always have the best fans.”
Senior libero Kenzie Maloney recorded 12 digs while freshman setter Nicklin Hames had 30 assists and eight digs.
Sun wasn’t the only Husker to make her postseason home debut. Cook said Friday was important for his freshmen: Hames, defensive specialist Megan Miller, middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach and outside hitter Capri Davis.
“I could tell they were a little bit nervous,” Cook said. “There is a different feel when you get to the tournament. But I thought they really worked through it. I thought Nicklin looked really comfortable tonight. Megan did a nice job. Callie, we were getting her the ball; she struggled a little bit on blocking. And then Capri was Capri. It’s good to get this first one out of the way. it’s just like the very first weekend we played Florida. Everybody was really nervous and just out of it and then the next day we came back and played great. I just think you get it out of the way and now we can go on and focus on playing a great match tomorrow.”
Hofstra’s top two hitters, junior outside hitter Laura Masciullo and junior right side hitter Aisha Skinner, combined for nine kills on 15 swings with just two errors in the first set. The Huskers held them to six kills and seven errors on 19 swings the rest of the way as they completely shut down Skinner in particular. The Huskers held Hofstra to .134 hitting while recording a .352 clip themselves.
“We just needed to make adjustments,” Cook said. “It’s not a typical Big Ten team that we’ve been playing for the last 20 matches. They’re just a little bit different and I don’t even know if there’s a team in the Big Ten like them. Probably Rutgers would be the one since they have so many international players. It’s just a matter of us settling in and we started making some good runs with serving, and that was really huge. Lauren had a run, Megan had a run, Nicklin had a run, Mikaela had a run, Lexi had a run, almost everybody had runs that we were able to get some momentum and start making Hofstra feel pressure.”
Nebraska knew Hofstra — 11th in the country in aces coming in — was going to serve tough, and the Pride’s first serve resulted in an overpass kill. Hofstra jumped out to a 5-3 lead before the Huskers settled in and responded with a 5-1 run to pull ahead 8-6.
Hofstra tied the match at 8-8, 10-10 and 11-11, hitting .533 through the first 22 points. Nebraska tightened things up from there, however, riding a 4-1 run into the first media timeout then expanding its lead to 21-15 with back-to-back kills by Sun.
Hofstra ripped off three straight to draw a timeout from Cook but Nebraska closed out the set on a 4-1 run to take a 1-0 lead. The Huskers hit .400 in the set while the Pride finished at .333 after the hot start.
Stivrins did a bit of everything with four kills on six swings, two digs, an ace and a block. Foecke took just two swings, neither of which fell for a kill, but Sun led the way with five kills.
“I think it’s important for everyone to kind of get going and for us to use all of our hitters and all of our weapons so that the blockers don’t really know where we’re going,” Sun said.
The Huskers got off to a fast start in set two, jumping out to a 5-1 lead despite taking just two swings during those six rallies. Nebraska blew the game open with a 7-0 run served by freshman Megan Miller that put the Huskers up 14-3.
The Huskers rolled from there, building the lead up as high as 13 a few times, including once on a kill by reserve sophomore outside hitter Sami Slaughter that made it 23-10. Stivrins blasted a kill off the body of a Hofstra player then finished it off herself with another kill two points later.
Nebraska hit .370 in the set and held the Pride to .000 with eight kills and eight errors. Stivrins had four more kills in the set.
Hofstra took the first two points of the third set but the Huskers responded with an 11-2 run and never looked back. The Huskers played the rest of the way with a six-to-nine-point cushion. Foecke finished off the match with an out-of-system back-row kill.
Mikaela Foecke finished off the first round sweep over Hofstra with her 9th kill. #Huskers win 25-19, 25-12, 25-16.
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) December 1, 2018
Hofstra only managed to serve one ace against Nebraska with seven errors while the Huskers had five aces and five miscues. After hitting .333 in the first set, Nebraska held the Pride to .045 over the last two and recorded four of their eight blocks in the third set after notching two in each of the first two games.
“I think in the beginning, our team as a whole, we were going up really high [to block] and they were just kind of using us,” Stivrins said. “With teams that are craftier, like them, we just need to be low and over so we went back to just being disciplined and low and over. Also, we were a little bit early so we just kind of slowed it down and got our timing under control.”
In the first match of the day at the Devaney, Missouri swept Arizona 25-17, 25-22, 25-18 while hitting .412, the second highest percentage in team postseason history. Kylie Deberg and Dariana Hollingswort put up 11 kills and seven digs apiece while Alyssa Munlyn added 10 kills on 12 swings. Setter Andrew Fuentes recorded 44 assists as the team put down 48 kills in the three games. Libero Riley seats notched a match-high 17 digs. Cook said the Tigers will look a lot more like the kind of teams they’re used to playing at this point of the season.
“They’re very much like the Big Ten teams,” Cook said. “They’ve got a physical right side, a very physical left side in Deberg and I’ve been watching that one middle, Munlyn, for four years; she’s a load. They’ll be a lot more similar to what we’re used to and they played great today.”
The Huskers will face the Tigers in the second round on Saturday at the Devaney Center. First serve on NET, BTN2Go and huskers.com is set for 7 p.m.
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.