Give Nicklin Hames credit.
“Nicklin took a hell of a shot, she’s tough,” Coach John Cook said post-game. “She was struggling but she found a way to will that team to a win.”
And will the team she certainly did. Nebraska (9-1) swept Illinois (2-8) on Saturday, 26-24, 30-28, 25-17.
As the score suggests (you know, despite a sweep), it wasn’t an easy win for Nebraska. Illinois had the set point in the first game, but the Huskers managed to survive two set points by the Illini and rally for the win. Illinois actually outhit Nebraska, .196 to .179, in that first set, but the Huskers found a way regardless.
The second set was similar, with the end of the set going back and forth between the two teams. While it was tied 28-28 at one point, sophomore Madi Kubik’s kill gave Nebraska set point while senior Lauren Stivrins finished it off. Despite the close end to it, the Huskers fared better in the second set, hitting .324 to Illinois’ .179.
“That was a good match. I knew Illinois would play hard,” Cook said. “Chris [Tamas]’s teams always play hard and they made some great digs tonight and some great rallies and we found a way to win two really close games and I think we turned it up there at the end of game three.
“Back and forth, back and forth. We played some great volleyball from 17 on in game three, so pretty pleased, pumped for the Huskers.”
That third set, which Cook mentioned, had the Huskers combine for 13 kills and three aces. The team hit .241 while holding Illinois to .000 in the third set.
But back to Hames for a moment. That shot Cook mentioned? It came on an on-court collision with Lexi Sun, which prompted a brief delay in game action. Nebraska called a timeout after Hames returned to her feet—the BTN+ announcers said it wasn’t a bad idea to give her a little more time to recover—but Cook assured everyone post-game that Hames said she was just fine.
Despite that, Nebraska did make some different substitutions late in the game. That included bringing freshman Anni Evans in to serve in the third set. Was it something Cook was testing out?
“We were just trying to give Nicklin breaks,” Cook said. “In the front row, just trying to give her breaks in case that thing went four or five [sets], just trying to give her as many breaks as I could. That was mainly it.
“We knew we were getting them out of system so we just thought we could get a little bit of a bigger block up there but Nicklin probably out-blocked all of them for the night.”
Hames wasn’t the only player to put herself at physical risk in the sweep of Illinois. Freshman Keonilei Akana also dove toward a row of chairs at one point, which Cook wasn’t even aware one could legally do based on how far back she was able to go.
“Flying into those chairs isn’t smart,” he said.
But flying into those chairs at least showed a team fighting to win, which can’t be downplayed. By the end, Lexi Sun led the Huskers with 14 kills while Lauren Stivrins followed with 11. Hames had 33 assists and Kenzie Knuckles finished with 13 digs.
Cook would still like to see more from his middles. That’s something he’d like to improve before Ohio State heads to Nebraska next weekend because it will take all of the Huskers’ hitters to win in the Big Ten.
“Again, you have to give Nicklin credit. She’s setting those guys great,” Cook said. “We’ve got to get all five of those guys going.”
For now, Nebraska heads home with two wins over Illinois. The Huskers next face the Buckeyes for a weekend series beginning Friday, March 12 at 6 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast locally on NET.
As for Cook, he has one thing in mind for the Huskers to work on over the next week.
“We’ve got to protect our setter,” Cook said, both with a laugh and a genuine sincerity to his voice.
Hames deserves it.
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.