No. 4 Nebraska shook off a first-set loss on Friday night to take down Georgia 3-1 and go 2-0 on day one of the Ameritas Players Challenge.
The Huskers (4-0) beat the Bulldogs (3-2) 19-25, 25-21, 25-22, 25-16 in front of an announced crowd of 8,285 at the Devaney Center. The Huskers rebounded from a slow start to hit .231 for the match and picked up the defense last to hold Georgia to .162.
“I thought our team did a nice job of making adjustments by games three and four,” Coach John Cook said. “We held them to basically to zero, which was a really good job by us. Again, we had a couple of people struggling and Whitney [Lauenstein] came in and gave us a big lift and thought I Kenzie Knuckles and [Keonilei] Akana did a great job in the back row and helped us get back in that match. We were getting served off the court and blocked off the court in the first first part of that match.”
Senior outside hitter Madi Kubik led the Huskers in kills for the second straight match with 15 and chipped in five digs and three blocks. Senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey added nine kills on .375 hitting and five blocks.
Sophomore opposite hitter Whitney Lauenstein subbed in off the bench in the first quarter and provided the Huskers with a big spark, playing the rest of the way and finishing with eight kills on .429 hitting.
Senior setter Nicklin Hames recorded her second double-double with 39 assists, 10 digs, three kills and two blocks. Freshmen libero Lexi Rodriguez matched Hames with 10 digs to lead all players.
Nebraska got off to a good start as a personal 3-0 run from Lexi Sun — a kill and back-to-back aces — gave the Huskers a 9-5 lead. Following a timeout, Georgia answered with its own 3-0 run. The Bulldogs tied it at 10-10, 11-11 and 12-12 then took control, putting together an 11-3 stretch to pull ahead 23-16.
Lauenstein checked in for a struggling Lindsay Krause mid-set and notched a couple of big kills.
“Well, it’s pretty nerve-wracking,” Lauenstein said about checking in mid-set. “So I just take a deep breath and go in and just trust my teammates. So that’s one thing that is really big, I just have to trust that my teammates are going to trust me too, that I’m going to come in and I’m ready to go.”
The Huskers used a 3-1 run to narrow the gap but Amber Stivrins closed out the set with her third kill.
Nebraska hit .036 in the first set as the Huskers hit into the Georgia block five times. Georgia hit .296. The Huskers served up three aces without an error but surrendered four aces to the Bulldogs.
Georgia continued its steady play into the second set, jumping out to a 7-3 lead early. The Bulldogs led 9-5 and 11-7 before the Huskers settled in with a 4-0 run featuring two kills by Sun, a kill by Schwarzenbach and a double-block by Schwarzenbach and Lauenstein.
Ten more ties and a couple of lead changes followed with neither side able to string together more than two points until Nebraska hit Georgia with a 5-0 run to finish off the set and tie the match up heading into the intermission. Kubik had two kills during the decisive run including one on set point.
Nebraska narrowly edged Georgia in hitting, .345 to .333. Kubik had an up and down second set with five kills and three errors on 12 swings, but she finished on a high note. Lauenstein started the second set and continued to provide a spark with three kills on five swings.
“It was really weird,” Cook said. “I don’t even know how to explain it. I haven’t seen us do that in a long time. I don’t know. We’ll have to look at the film and figure it out. It just could be our hitters were closing their eyes and swinging hard; that’s typically what happens. But again, they made some good adjustments and we worked our way through it. I think actually in games three and four we were starting to play with some rhythm and better execution. Nicklin got into a better rhythm. We just started flowing a little bit better.”
The teams traded 3-0 runs to start the third set, then after a pair of sideouts Nebraska used another 3-0 run to pull ahead 8-5. Five straight sideouts led to a Georgia 3-0 run that tied it up again at 10-10.
Neither side managed to create more than one point of separation until a 3-0 Nebraska run made it 16-14 Huskers. Nebraska then broke a streak of 10 straight sideouts with a Georgia attack error that gave the Huskers a 22-19 lead. After a timeout to regroup, the Bulldogs scored two straight points to cut it back to one. Kubik put down a kill out of a Nebraska timeout, then three straight errors (one by Kubik, two by Georgia) ended the set and gave the Huskers a 2-1 lead.
Nebraska hit just .103 with eight attack errors but the Huskers held the Bulldogs to .081 and nine miscues after Georgia had seven errors total in the first two sets. Kubik had seven kills in the set.
Nebraska used a 4-0 run early in the fourth to pull ahead 6-2. The highlight of the run was a Lauenstein kill that Rodriguez set up with a diving one-handed dig in front of the Nebraska bench. After the point, Kubik ran over to Rodriguez and picked her up off the ground in celebration.
“We were talking about building a transition edge,” Kubik said. “Sometimes I think we expect we’re going to get the first ball kill and then teams dig us and we’re like ‘What? No way!’ And so staying in that and digging in for the long rallies, that was just huge and she made a great save and we were able to win the point, so that was just awesome. It just validated that she’s really digging into that and striving for that.”
The point and celebration fired up the crowd and Georgia used a timeout to calm things down. It didn’t work, however, as the Huskers dominated the rest of the way. Nebraska pulled ahead 10-4, then 15-7, then 19-9 and finally 24-12.
Georgia saved four match points, but Kubik finally finished it off on Nebraska’s fifth attempt with a kill. Nebraska hit .625 with just two errors in the fourth while holding Georgia to minus-.087 with 10 more errors. Five different Huskers had at least two kills as Hames got in a spread the ball around to everyone.
Nebraska will close out the Ameritas Players Challenge against Arizona State (3-2) on Saturday night at 6 p.m. CT, or 30 minutes following the conclusion of Omaha versus Georgia, scheduled for a 3:30 start.
“I’d like to see us continue to build on what we did today, and play clean volleyball and Husker volleyball and continue to be in a rhythm,” Cook said. “Again, just, just play great as a team; that’s what we started doing today.”
Arizona State dropped a five-set match to Georgia to open tournament play on Friday morning then bounced back to beat Omaha in five in the afternoon. Outside hitter Iman Isanovic totaled 50 kills on 119 swings in Arizona State’s two matches on Friday, hitting .269. The 6-foot-1 junior is averaging 4.05 kills per set overall this season.
Fans can stream Saturday’s match on Big Ten Network+.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.