“We’re going to really make an emphasis on Sunday of starting those first 10 points out really strong.”
That was junior captain Nicklin’s Hames’ message after Nebraska’s four-set loss to Minnesota on Friday. The Golden Gophers dominated the action at the start of each set and Nebraska couldn’t find a way to overcome those early deficits.
In round two at the Devaney Center, the Huskers outscored the Gophers 21-9 in the first 10 points of each set combined as No. 4 Nebraska swept No. 5 Minnesota 25-17, 25-15, 25-22 to split the weekend series.
“I just like their mentality, how they came back from Friday, the defining moment in this part of the season to how they would respond,” Coach John Cook said. “Minnesota knocked us down and we got back up and fought back, and we played really well today. That’s a good sign, we need that. When we play some of the other teams we’ve been playing, we can get by with our talent and not having a sense of urgency on every point. When you play Minnesota and some of these other teams, there’s such a sense of urgency on every point.”
Minnesota (9-1) blocked Nebraska (7-1) 20 times on Friday. On Sunday, the Gophers had just four blocks and Nebraska hit .300. Lexi Sun committed 10 attack errors in round one but bounced back to lead the Huskers with 12 kills on .321 hitting (just three errors), a team-high 13 digs, four blocks and an ace. Madi Kubik added 10 kills on .286 hitting and 12 digs.
The Huskers got strong production from the middles as well with Lauren Stivrins and Kayla Caffey combining for 15 kills on .419 hitting, and Caffey added a match-high seven blocks. Minnesota had five aces and three errors on Friday as the Huskers had a tough time passing. On Sunday, Minnesota had eight service errors and did not record an ace.
“We were a completely different team today,” Cook said. “We got Nicklin the ball and were able to run our offense. Today you got to see what we’ve been looking like in practice. I tell you guys all the time, serving and passing is the most important.”
Defensively, Nebraska held Minnesota to .153 hitting and blocked the Gophers eight times. Minnesota star opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy lit the Huskers up with 27 kills on .379 hitting on Friday, but the Huskers limited her to 12 kills on .135 hitting in round two.
“I think we were getting a lot of good touches,” Sun said. “Our blockers were in the right position and we kind of made some adjustments based on what we found out from Friday. That was cool to see.”
Nebraska opened the match with a 3-0 run and led 8-2 after a blistering start that saw the Huskers notch seven kills on their first 10 swings.
Nebraska won the 11th rally too with a double-block from Sun and Caffey and the closest Minnesota got the rest of the set was four points at 13-9. Nebraska pushed its lead to seven, then eight, then nine before settling in for the 25-17 win.
Nebraska hit .333 in the first set with terrific offensive balance as five different players had at least two kills. Sun and Kubik had four apiece to lead the way. Minnesota hit .147.
Nebraska won the battle during the first 10 points of the second set as well, jumping out to a 7-3 lead. The Huskers doubled the Gophers up at 12-6, but after four straight sideouts Minnesota used a 4-0 run to cut the deficit to two at 14-12.
It was all Nebraska the rest of the set, however. A kill by Kubik and an errant attack by Minnesota (after a successful challenge from Cook overturned the call on the court) ended the Gopher run and put the Huskers up 16-12. Minnesota scored just three points the rest of the way and Nebraska closed it out on a 6-0 run served by freshman defensive specialist Keonilei Akana, who finished with two aces in the match.
Nebraska had just one attack error in the second set, hitting .433 overall. Kubik and Stivrins had four kills apiece to lead the way. The Huskers blocked the Gophers four times and held them to .118 hitting.
The Huskers held the lead after 10 rallies once again in the third set, but it was only 6-4 this time and Minnesota won the next two points to tie it up. The Golden Gophers took their first lead of the match at 9-8 after kills from Taylor Landfair and Jenna Wenaas and then added to it with a double-block from Wenaas and Katie Myers.
Six ties and three lead changes followed as the teams traded shots over the next several rallies. Nebraska used 3-0 run to break the sixth tie and pull ahead 20-17, but after a timeout Minnesota responded with a 3-0 run of its own to knot it up at 20-all. After trading sideouts, Samedy appeared to have given Minnesota the lead with a cross-court kill, but a successful challenge by Cook turned the play into a net violation and put Nebraska up 22-21.
Samedy came right back with another kill to tie it, however, blasting the ball off Hames’ face. The trainer took a quick look at Hames, but she stayed in the match initially and set Stivrins for the go-ahead kill. Cook used the double substitution after that, however, sending in Jazz Sweet to play for Hames in the front row and Anni Evans to serve and set.
The freshman walk-on from Waverly rose to the occasion, setting Sun for back-to-back kills to close out the match and complete the sweep.
“Nicklin got hit, so I decide to go with that,” Cook said. “Anni’s done a great job. We ran two points and Keonilei made a big dig, a cross-court dig on their outside hitter. It’s a good double-sub for us.”
Both teams hit below .200 in the third set, but Minnesota had three service errors and no aces while Nebraska had an ace and two errors. Sun took over with six kills in the final set.
Stivrins said the Huskers came out with a completely different energy on Sunday and it showed in their play.
“I think it just came from everyone kind of accepting that that’s not OK and the way we played Friday, no one wants to experience that again,” Stivrins said. “Every single person came into practice yesterday and knew that we were going to get better and we were going to work on the things that we needed to work on to make sure that what happened Friday doesn’t happen again.”
The road doesn’t get any easier next week as the Huskers will head to Madison to take on top-ranked Wisconsin in a pair of matches on Friday and Saturday.
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.