It’s not often that a John Cook-coached team hits .300 in a match and loses. In fact, it had never happened during Cook's tenure at Nebraska. That changed on Saturday night, though, as the No. 2 Huskers dropped a three-set match to No. 13 Wisconsin.
After 299 straight wins while hitting above .300, the Badgers put the first tally in the loss column for Nebraska in front of 8,393 fans at the Devaney Center.
Wisconsin (8-4, 3-0 Big Ten) beat Nebraska (11-2, 3-1) 25-21, 25-22, 25-22. The Huskers hit .336 but the Badgers were even better at .376.
“I thought we attacked really well tonight,” Cook said. “Wisconsin had a hard time stopping us but we had a really hard time stopping them. Part of that is we didn’t stay with our assignments and preparation, we stopped serving tough and they got into a really good rhythm, and I also think I saw a tired version of our serve, block and defense tonight and I think that’s what three road games does to you.
“They had three home games, and that’s the quirk in the schedule. Normally we’re a great serve, block and defensive team and tonight it was just like in slow motion. You can probably attribute a little bit of it to that, and then Wisconsin played really well. We got to 20 points and we didn’t put any pressure on them. We made soft plays, made errors and they’re a very steady team.”
Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said both the blockers and the diggers struggled to get into position all night, but a good defense starts with keeping the other team off balance, and Nebraska did not do that from the service line. The Huskers had 10 errors and no aces while the Badgers had three aces to seven errors.
“It’s from the service line as well, just going after it, getting them out of system,” sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said. “They have a bunch of good hitters, so it was key for us to get them out of system and we didn’t really do that in a lot of situations, so they were coming at us full force.”
Wisconsin had one hitter with 11 kills and three others with 10 each; the middle blockers, All-American Dana Rettke and Danielle Hart, combined for 20 kills and one error on 34 swings.
Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun finished with a match high 15 kills on .270 hitting. Junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet recorded 13 kills on .524 hitting. Stivrins had nine kills on 11 swings. Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik just missed a double-double with nine kills on .364 hitting and 10 digs. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles matched Kubik with 10 digs and Hames added 42 assists.
“I think Wisconsin did a really good job of staying aggressive, and I think that there were times that we kind of took our foot off the gas a little bit and were a little timid or undisciplined on the block type thing,” Stivrins said. “I think Wisconsin did a really good job from the service line as well, being aggressive and we were also timid, and that didn’t play in our favor. We were missing a lot of balls that we usually don’t miss.”
Wisconsin used a 3-0 run early to take a 6-3 lead but Nebraska rallied to tie it at 7-7, 8-8 and 10-10 before pulling ahead 11-10. After two more ties, Nebraska rode a 3-0 run into the first-set media timeout to lead 15-12. At the midway point, Nebraska was hitting .500.
Wisconsin tied it back up at 16-16, Nebraska pulled ahead 18-16 and the Badgers responded with a 3-0 run including back-to-back errors by the Huskers. Sun tied it up with a kill, then a couple of plays later a successful challenge gave the Huskers a 21-20 lead, but Wisconsin responded with a 4-0 run for set point. Stivrins got a kill to end the run but Wisconsin closed it out on the next rally.
Nebraska out-hit Wisconsin .317 to .293 with two more kills but Wisconsin was plus-four from the service line (two aces, no errors to Nebraska’s two errors, no aces). Sun led the Huskers with five kills and no errors in the first set while outside hitters Molly Haggerty and Grace Loberg had five kills apiece for the Badgers.
The second set followed a similar script to the first. A back-and-forth battle early gave way to a 15-13 Nebraska lead at the media timeout, and once again the Huskers were hitting .500 at the halfway mark.
Wisconsin took control when play resumed with a 4-0 run that gave the Badgers an 18-16 lead, and Nebraska managed to string two points together just one time the rest of the set. A successful Wisconsin challenge overturned a Nebraska point and gave the Badgers set point at 24-20, and after a kill by Sun, Haggerty closed it out.
Nebraska hit .424 but allowed the Badgers to hit .517 with 17 kills and use two errors. Sun added another five kills to her tally, as did Kubik, and Stivrins converted all four of her swings into kills. But miscues down the stretch once again doomed the Huskers.
Nebraska surged ahead 8-5 early in the third set with a 4-0 run capped by an overpass kill from Sun set up by a tough serve from Hames. After a timeout, Wisconsin gradually chipped away at the deficit until it knotted the score at 13-all. Nebraska pulled ahead six times, and six times the Badgers tied it up until a 4-0 run featuring two kills, an ace and a block gave Wisconsin the lead for good at 23-20. The Badgers traded sideouts with the Huskers from there to close out the sweep.
Wisconsin hit .355 to Nebraska’s .273 in the final frame. Sweet notched six kills on eight swings but it wasn’t enough.
“It hurts,” Hames said. “It sucks. No one wants to get swept at home, especially in front of your fans. And we were so close in all those games. We were right there and we had the lead in most of them, and we’d just make a few errors and they’d take control. Kind of disappointing.”
Hames said the focus in practice this week will be on finding consistency, something that has evaded the young Huskers so far this season.
After a week in the gym practice, Nebraska will have two more home matches next weekend. On Friday, Michigan State will come to tow for an 8 p.m. start. On Sunday, Michigan will swing through for a 1 p.m. match.
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.