On a day when top-five teams struggled to finish off ranked opponents at home, No. 4 Nebraska reversed the trend Sunday night by taking down No. 21 Kentucky 3-1 at the Devaney Center.
Earlier in the day, No. 5 Stanford and No. 1 Wisconsin pulled off reverse sweeps at No. 2 Louisville and No. 3 Florida, but Nebraska (9-0) pulled off a come-from-behind win in game four to top the Wildcats 25-14, 25-22, 23-25, 25-21.
The highlight of the night came in the fourth set with a 72-second rally that featured 19 attacks and a handful of incredible defensive plays between the two teams. It culminated in a Harper Murray kill that got the Devaney Center crowd on its feet.
THE RALLY OF ALL RALLIES.
— Nebraska Volleyball (@HuskerVB) September 18, 2023
“I think we really just kept fighting and fighting every time it came over the net,” junior Ally Batenhorst said. “They got some really good ups and we got some really good ups too, and I think just after winning that everyone was so hype. It was just incredible to see how hard we worked for that point. We do that every day in practice, we prepare for those points and those long rallies, so I think we were ready for it and we prevailed.”
Batenhorst called it the best rally she’s seen in her career, and Murray said she was grateful that Kentucky coach Craig Skinner challenged the play to give everyone a chance to catch their breath.
“Both teams were fighting super hard on that point, as they were on every point,” Coach John Cook said. “They had several chances to win it, we had several chances to win it and people were just making freak plays … It’s just trying to impose your will and it also got our crowd fired up. Our crowd was great for a Sunday night … That was a fun environment and a fun match.”
The Huskers were without outside hitter Lindsay Krause and defensive specialist Laney Choboy, who are both day-to-day with minor injuries, but Batenhorst and Maisie Boesiger stepped up in their places.
Nebraska hit .338 behind 17 kills and 10 digs apiece from Merritt Beason and Harper Murray who hit .438 and .308, respectively. Batenhorst added 12 kills on .281 hitting while Andi Jackson chipped in 10 kills on .500 hitting. Bergen Reilly recorded her third double-double of the season with a season-high 46 assists and 12 digs.
Kentucky hit .243 as Lexi Rodriguez led the defensive effort with 18 digs and an ace. Boesiger added six digs and an ace off the bench. Bekka Allick was in on six of Nebraska nine blocks and chipped in four kills on 10 attempts. Both teams served four aces in total, but the Wildcats finished with eight more errors. Nebraska out-dug Kentucky 61 to 48.
“All you have to do is see that one rally, how hard both teams were fighting tonight for points,” Cook said. “It was a great match, very high-level volleyball. We had a hard time stopping them just because they were playing really, really well. Their setter does a great job, they passed great and we really had to dig down deep to win game four. It was not looking good there for a while.
“All the credit to Kentucky. They played really hard tonight and they played really, really well. He’s got a great team and I know I know the record isn’t great, but look out — those guys are going to be competing for the SEC championship.”
Kentucky made things tough on Nebraska early in set one, but the Huskers’ block settled in and Nebraska used a 9-1 run including seven straight with Reilly serving to open up a 17-10 lead and draw both of the Wildcats’ timeouts. The Huskers stuffed Kentucky three times during the run.
Nebraska continue to roll from there, winning 17 of the last 22 rallies overall as Murray put down the set-point kill. Nebraska hit .464 behind five kills on eight swings from Beason and four kills on five attempts from Jackson. Kentucky hit .133.
Similar to set one, Nebraska used a 7-1 surge midway through set two to take a 16-11 lead. This time the Wildcats rallied to within one at 17-16, but the Huskers responded with three straight including an ace from Boesiger. That cushion was enough to overcome a couple of late attack errors as Beason’s sixth kill of the set sent Nebraska into the intermission with a 2-0 lead.
Nebraska hit .343 with 18 kills in the set. Kentucky hit .313 but only notched 12 kills. Murray added five kills to her tally while Allick recorded four kills on seven swings after making it though the first set without an attack.
Nebraska had a tough time getting through Kentucky’s defense early in set three as the Wildcats used a 4-0 run early to take a 6-2 lead. Nebraska’s first kill of the set didn’t come until the ninth rally. Nebraska tied it up at 6-6, but the Wildcats responded with a 6-1 run to take their largest lead of the day at 12-7.
The Huskers responded with their own run and cut the deficit to one six different times before finally typing it up at 18-18 on a Murray kill. However, Kentucky responded with a 4-1 run to build a cushion then earned set point at 24-21. A Kentucky attack error and a Beason ace gave Nebraska life, but the Wildcats closed it out on its third try with a kill.
The Huskers hit .353 behind five kills from Batenhorst, but Kentucky hit .432 with 19 kills and just three errors. After a 32-17 edge in digs for Nebraska in the first two sets, Kentucky out-dug Nebraska 15-12 in game three.
“Their hitters just started killing balls,” Cook said. “I just think they got in a great rhythm. I think in the first game we were getting them a little bit stressed passing and then once they started passing, we couldn’t stop them. They hit .432 in game three; we just couldn’t stop them. We were trying everything and they were passing great. That was probably the biggest adjustment they made, and they served us really tough. Our passing broke down. We still hit .353 and lost. That shows you the level of play that was going on tonight.”
The Wildcats’ momentum rolled into set four as their block started to cause all kinds of problems for Nebraska’s attack. Kentucky used a 4-0 run to build a 10-5 lead. The Huskers stopped the run and began chipping away — including the marathon rally win — and cut the deficit down to one at 14-13 before surging ahead with a 4-0 run to make it 20-18.
The teams traded points for a brief stretch before Nebraska delivered the knockout blow with a 3-0 run to end the match which included Murray’s sixth kill of the frame to set up match point.
After both teams hit over .300 in the first three sets combined, Nebraska held Kentucky to .122 in game four while hitting .238.
“I think Kentucky played great defense and I think they stepped it up as the game went on and we fought back harder,” Batenhorst said. “They played a great third set, and we knew we had to step it up as well. I think we really went for it and picked up our defense as well and kept going for it, taking big swings and getting touches on those blocks. They had a few really good hitters, and we just kind of took care of the little things and stayed disciplined on our side of the net.”
After closing out the nonconference with two top-25 opponents, Nebraska will open Big Ten play on Friday as No. 19 Ohio State visits the Devaney Center.
“I told the team, it’s going to be like this every week in the Big Ten for the next 10 weeks,” Cook said. “So buckle up, let’s go.”