Nebraska’s winning streak came to an end on Wednesday night, but Wisconsin’s — six straight against the Huskers dating back to 2017 — continued with a fourth straight sweep.
No. 3 Wisconsin (18-1, 10-1 Big Ten) took down No. 6 Nebraska (16-4, 10-1) 26-24, 25-19, 25-23 at the Devaney Center. Nebraska had chances late in both the first and third sets, but the Badgers closed it out each time.
“How many times have you guys heard me say it comes down to winning games by two points?” Coach John Cook said. “We lost two of the games by two points tonight, so there was the difference. Wisconsin played better than we did. It’s disappointing because we’ve been playing really well, but they got us out of out of what we’ve been doing and did a good job of it. So good job by Wisconsin.”
Nebraska hit .148, its second-lowest percentage of the season. Wisconsin hit .229. Both teams had seven service errors while Wisconsin had the only ace of the night.
“It was not good enough tonight, where it needed to be,” Cook said about his team’s serving and passing. “You look at aces, we only got aced once, but you look at the number of passes that Nicklin couldn’t do anything and she had to bump set, she was just trying to get it up there. We had some bad misses tonight where we’re given them free balls and then they just tee off. So Wisconsin out-passed us tonight.”
Lauren Stivrins (.238 hitting), Madi Kubik (.150) and Lindsay Krause (.143) led the Huskers with nine kills apiece, but each of them struggled with efficiency. Kayla Caffey added eight kills on .375 hitting. Nebraska had a tough time penetrating Wisconsin’s defense as libero Lauren Barnes and setter Sydney Hilley, both super seniors, finished with 20 and 16 digs, respectively.
“Their libero bettered the ball and put the ball on the setter’s head and Hilley got to a lot of balls that she put up great out-of-system sets where they could do something,” Cook said. “We were not doing that and we were having a roll-shot balls over, give them easy balls, just put it right back to their libero and then defend those hitters. So that was a difference. They got the ball, as we say, in the box a lot more than we did.”
Nicklin Hames led the way defensively for the Huskers with 14 digs to go with her 32 assists. Lexi Rodriguez added 11 digs while Keonilei Akana chipped in 10.
Nebraska held Wisconsin’s top attackers, middle blocker Dana Rettke (11 kills on .308 hitting) and Julia Orzol (seven kills on .103 hitting) well below their season averages, but freshman Anna Smrek, a 6-foot-9 middle blocker, stepped up with 12 kills on .647 hitting.
Nebraska showed some nerves early, recording three different kinds of errors in the first six rallies as Wisconsin pulled ahead 5-1 out of the gates. The Badgers took their largest lead at 12-6 before Nebraska settled in, using a 12-4 run to pull ahead 18-16.
Wisconsin scored three in a row to regain the lead at 20-19. Akana’s first career kill tied it up again as she set the ball over the net and the Badgers let it drop. The teams traded sideouts — 10 straight in total — until Wisconsin snapped the streak and won the set with a lift call on Nebraska.
Nebraska out-hit Wisconsin .255 to .212, but Nebraska’s service and ball-handling errors gave the Badgers the edge in total points. Ally Batenhorst led the Huskers with four kills in the first set. Nebraska held Rettke to one kill and two errors on eight attempts, but Smrek had five kills on six swings.
“We’ve got enough players have been in big matches that should handle that better, but we didn’t,” Cook said. “We were sloppy to start with and dug a big hole. We still made a nice comeback but that’s a mindset to come out and start off really good and put pressure on them right away. When we’re at home, we should be doing that, and we didn’t do it. You can look at the first serve: bottom of the net. What message does that send to Wisconsin? ‘Here you go, we’re not going to compete tonight.’ It’s just a mentally weak play. So there you go, that’s that’s how you get down five one.”
Wisconsin led most of the second set, but Nebraska stayed within a couple of points throughout the first half and tied it up three times. Wisconsin finally created a little separation with a 3-0 run to make it 15-11, then took its largest lead at 18-13.
Three straight Nebraska blocks — Wisconsin’s first three errors of the set — made it a two-point game. After trading points, Wisconsin made a big push, scoring five straight to get to 24. Nebraska saved two set points, but Wisconsin finished it off on the third try with a kill by Smrek, her fourth of game two.
Nebraska hit just .064 with nine errors in the second set. Wisconsin hit .237. All four Wisconsin attack errors came on Nebraska blocks, but the Badgers were on-target with their swings otherwise.
The third set started much like the first two with Wisconsin taking an early lead at 4-1. However, the Huskers turned the tables soon after with a 6-0 run featuring two kills and a solo block by Caffey. Anni Evans served the run which gave Nebraska its largest lead of the night at 11-7. Wisconsin had one kill and four errors at that point.
The Badgers cleaned things up from there, however, rallying to tie the match at 17-17 then pulling ahead 21-18 with a 4-0 run.
“I think we just took our foot off the gas pedal,” Hames said. “With a team like Wisconsin, you can’t give them any easy points and we didn’t convert on a couple free balls and that cost us. I thought they put a lot of pressure and we weren’t putting a lot of pressure on them towards the end of that third set.”
Seven straight sideouts followed before Nebraska managed to string together a couple of points thanks to on overpass kill from Stivrins that made it 24-23. Stivrins and Hames weren’t on the same page on the next point, however, as Stivrins hit a slide attempt into the net to end the match.
Wisconsin doubled the Huskers in hitting in the third set, .250 to .125. Wisconsin had 14 kills and just one error in the final 30 rallies. After a quiet first two sets, Rettke went off with six of her 11 kills in game three. Nebraska’s middles had four kills apiece, but they combined for five errors as well.
“We learned from it,” Cook said. “I don’t know if there’s a bunch of technical things we learned, but we learned how we have to play against a really good team.We’ve lost some matches this year because we haven’t played like we’re capable of or have the mindset of how we need to play, and and tonight was one of them. I told them this reminded me of some of the matches we lost in the nonconference.”
Nebraska will get another crack at the Badgers in a month, but first they have to navigate a tough second half of Big Ten play. The Huskers will head to No. 11 Minnesota on Saturday for a 6:30 p.m. CT start.
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.