No. 4 Nebraska (12-3, 5-0) took sole possession of first place in the Big Ten on Wednesday night with a four-set win over No. 14 Michigan State (11-3, 4-1) in front of 8,406 fans at the Devaney Center.
Scores in Nebraska’s favor were 25-19, 25-15, 22-25 and 25-19.
“I was really pleased with, coming off the weekend, how much energy we had to spend and we came in and played really clean volleyball the first two games tonight,” Coach John Cook said. “We were well-prepared, our players executed the game plan really well and we didn’t let their serving take over the match.”
Senior outside-hitter Annika Albrecht led the way with a match-high 18 kills, 15 digs, three solo stuffs and two aces. Albrecht has reached double figures in kills in her last seven matches and has five double-doubles on the season.
“She’s just so good seeing the block and hitting around it and using it, and there’s not a single ball that drops on her,” redshirt freshman middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said about Albrecht. “That’s really impressive. She’s just one of those consistent players and it’s nice to have one of those on the team. You can always look to her to put the ball away or to get that ball up.”
Stivrins and true freshman opposite hitter Jazz Sweet added 10 kills apiece with Sweet hitting .318. Cook said on Monday that he wanted to get Sweet going after the freshman had fallen into a bit of a rut.
“We loved the match-up we had and we kept telling Kelly ‘Get her the ball,’” Cook said. “We probably could have gotten her the ball more but we were stuck in rotations with her out than we were her in and we were making runs with those rotations, so she wasn’t out there as much as the rest of them, but I thought she did a really solid job tonight.”
Senior setter Kelly Hunter notched her fifth double-double with 45 assists, 14 digs and five blocks. Junior libero Kenzie Maloney led five different Huskers with double-digit digs, finishing with 17 to go with two service aces.
Nebraska hit .217 for the match and held the Spartans to .147. Michigan State led the Big Ten in aces per set at nearly two per game heading into Wednesday night’s match while the Huskers were second to last.
“We talk about that every match, winning the serve and pass battle,” Cook said. “We have to win that, especially against a team like this. These matches they’ve won, they basically have served teams off the court. We prepared really hard for it … Our players had a lot of pride and they were not going to let Michigan State stress us with their serve.”
Michigan State did not serve a single ace against the Huskers and also committed nine service errors. The Huskers finished with five aces to six errors.
“Going into it, we knew they were a really great team,” Albrecht said about Michigan State’s serving. “They have three spinners on their team and you don’t see that very often in the women’s game. So Kayla [Banwarth] had bought all of us passers in, we scouted them really well and they couldn’t do anything about it.”
Nebraska came out a little sluggish and allowed Michigan State to pull ahead 5-3, but a 4-0 run (including an ace by Mikaela Foecke to give the Huskers their first lead at 6-5) put the Huskers ahead and they never trailed again.
The Huskers led by as much as eight, holding set point at 24-16. Michigan State saved three points before Albrecht capped off a frantic rally with her fifth kill.
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The second set went back and forth early, but Nebraska pulled ahead for good with a 3-0 run that gave Nebraska a 10-7 lead and the Huskers controlled the action the rest of the set. The lead swelled to as much as 11 and Nebraska finished things off with a kill by Foecke to take a 2-0 lead into the intermission.
Nebraska looked to be headed for a sweep as the Huskers built up a 19-15 lead late in the third set, but Michigan State rallied back with a 10-3 run to extend the match to a fourth set. The Spartans out-hit Nebraska .294 to .095 in the third.
“I think we got a little too comfortable in game three and missed some plays at the end there to win that,” Cook said.
Nebraska regained its focus for the fourth frame, however, storming out to a 19-9 lead and holding off a late rally by the Spartans to finish off the match.
“We really just came together and were like ‘they didn’t do anything special; that was all on our side,’” Stivrins said. “We were sometimes getting a little too frustrated that they were just keeping it in play and getting good touches. I think we just settled down and regrouped and went back out there and played Nebraska volleyball.”
Albrecht recorded eight kills on 10 swings in the fourth set alone to carry the Huskers to the finish line.
“I think Anni’s just having a really good time and enjoying it and enjoying her role that she has,” Cook said.
Nebraska just wrapped up a 13-day stretch that saw the Huskers play four top-15 teams and not only did they win all four, they only dropped three sets total during that span.
“There’s not been a single day that’s easy,” Stivrins said. “Every single night’s a challenge in the Big Ten and it’s just awesome to go out there and get after it with our team because that’s what we work hard for, that’s what we want. We don’t want to go out there and kill a team; that’s just no fun. It’s nice to battle and see what our team’s capable of.”
Next up, Nebraska will hit the road to take on an Iowa team that is 13-5 and just knocked off No. 22 Michigan in four sets.
“We knew we had a really tough stretch and we’re just trying to survive it,” Cook said. “It doesn’t get any easier. Iowa’s going to be super fired up and we’ve got three road matches in a row now.”
First serve in Iowa City on Saturday is set for 7 p.m.
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.