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No. 5 Huskers Sweep SMU to Finish 3-0 at Ameritas Players Challenge

August 27, 2023

No. 5 Nebraska shook off some early offensive struggles to sweep SMU on Sunday afternoon, finishing 3-0 at the Ameritas Players Challenge.

Nebraska beat SMU 25-16, 25-23, 25-16 despite hitting below .100 through an error-filled first two sets at the Devaney Center. He Huskers rebounded in the third with just four attack errors to hit .144 for the match. Defensively, Nebraska was sharp throughout, holding SMU to .045 hitting and recording 11 blocks. The Mustangs misfired 13 times from the service line with just one ace.

“I think our defense is really solid and our blocking today, we were touching everything,” Coach John Cook said. “That’s a pretty nice team and they go pretty fast. So it was a defensive clinic we put on today … But we can’t make so many errors. That’s going to be the thing we’ve really got to clean up.”

Freshman Harper Murray started her third straight match and led everyone with 14 kills on .310 hitting with 10 digs for her first double-double. She made the Ameritas Players Challenge All-Tournament Team and earned MVP honors, joining teammates Lexi Rodriguez and Laney Choboy, Utah State’s Shelby Caplllonch and Kennedi Boyd, Lipscomb’s Delaney Smith and SMU’s Natalie Perdue on the team.

“Everyone, I think, on our team at least already knew she was a stud, but her first three games she proved it to everyone,” Rodriguez said of Murray. “We see it every day, but it was pretty cool for everyone else to get to see it.”

Rodriguez finished with a match-high 14 digs and two aces. Freshman Andi Jackson started her second straight match at middle blocker and contributed five kills on .333 hitting with seven blocks. Freshman Bergen Reilly, who was on the court for every point throughout the weekend, finished with 29 assists and nine digs.

Merritt Beason started her third straight match at opposite hitter while Lindsay Krause filled the other outside hitter spot, but Cook gave Ally Batenhorst and Hayden Kubik chances to play as well and none of the pins outside of Murray hit better than .160. The three left sides all hit in the negative, and Cook said he wasn’t sure why they struggled so much.

“They’re getting great sets,” Cook said. “Hopefully somebody is going to step up and take that spot. That’s the message: who’s going to step up and take it? There’s a great opportunity there if you want to play.”

While Murray got off to a good start offensively, recording Nebraska’s first four kills, it took a bit for anyone else to get going. With Nebraska leading 8-5, Krause hit low into the block twice on the same rally with the second one falling for a Mustang point, and Cook made a quick change with Batenhorst checking in to finish the set.

Eventually, the Huskers found a rhythm and ripped off a 13-2 run including 6 straight with Murray at the service line. It took seven tries to close it out, but Murray finally did with a back-row kill.

The freshman had eight kills on 11 errorless swings. The rest of the team had six kills and nine errors on 27 attempts. Despite the offensive struggles (.132 hitting overall), the defense remained strong as Nebraska held SMU to minus-067 hitting and five kills.

Nebraska’s disjointed play offensively continued into the second set, allowing SMU to hang around. Game two saw nine ties early before a 5-0 Nebraska run featuring Beason at the service line put the Huskers up 17-13. Krause regained her spot in the lineup and delivered her first kill and a block back-to-back to cap the run.

SMU cut the deficit down to one twice, but Jackson and Krause teamed up to stuff a back-row attack on set point. Nebraska won despite hitting just .068 in the set thanks in part to seven service errors from SMU. The Mustangs hit .136. 

The Huskers let their defense do the talking to start the third set, racing out to a 7-2 lead early behind four blocks. The Huskers used a 5-0 run with Reilly serving to open up the lead even more then cruised to the finish. Kubik, the sophomore, made her season debut with Nebraska leading 22-11 but misfired on both of her swings.

The Cornhuskers hit .276 behind four more kills from Murray while SMU hit .028.

In the three matches of the tournament, the freshman from Michigan averaged 3.67 kills per set on .343 hitting to lead Nebraska’s offense and said her confidence grew throughout the weekend.

“The first game, jitters and all that stuff after Red-White, but I think getting used to playing with the team and seeing how our lineup goes and all the warm-ups and stuff, just getting used to everything is going to help us,” Murray said. “I think my confidence went up over the past couple days just getting used to our system.”

Next up for the Huskers is Volleyball Day in Nebraska on Wednesday. The Huskers will face Omaha at Memorial Stadium in front of an expected crowd north of 90,000.

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