A week after sweeping Iowa on its own court, the No. 6 Huskers needed five sets to get past the Hawkeyes in round two at the Devaney Center on Saturday night.
The Huskers (22-3, 14-2 Big Ten) cleaned up some shoddy passing and overcame an error-filled start to finish strong, beating the Hawkeyes (9-18, 3-13) 25-20, 23-25, 25-27, 25-18, 15-6 in front of a packed house of 8,425. Nebraska hit .263 and held Iowa to .171.
“Iowa played really well tonight,” Coach John Cook said. “That was a completely different team than what we saw seven days ago. It’s probably like being in a prize fight and we got a haymaker from the very first play and a couple plays in the first game. I think we started pressing a little bit and Iowa really took it to us and played great, then we found a way to kind of turn the momentum and smooth it out and play a little cleaner.”
The Huskers had eight service errors to just two aces, 25 attack errors, five serve receive errors and seven blocking errors.
“Sometimes when you’re not expecting a tough match and then all of a sudden you get into a tough match, then you start pressing,” Cook said. “That’s why you saw a lot of plays you normally don’t see from our team. I cannot remember the last time I saw our team in the net seven times. That’s a lack of focus and discipline.”
Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik came up big with a match-high 19 kills on .261 hitting and 16 digs. Junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet finished strong with 10 of her 18 kills in the final two sets and she hit .417 for the match.
Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun had eight kills and 16 digs but also committed nine attack errors, two service errors, two serve receive errors and a blocking error.
Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had 15 kills on .542 hitting while sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach added nine kills on .316 hitting and five blocks.
Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames did a bit of everything, finishing with 55 assists, 12 digs, five kills and three blocks. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles recorded a match-high 22 digs while sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller chipped in 13 digs off the bench.
With the win, the Huskers remain in a tie with Minnesota for second place in the Big Ten, one match behind Wisconsin with two weeks left of the regular season.
“We’re one step closer to being able to take that Big Ten title away from Wisconsin,” Sweet said. “We got to apply a lot of the things we were working on this week. I think it was happy but also felt really satisfied that we could do some of the things that we’ve been training this week.”
Iowa came out on fire in the first set and Nebraska’s normally stout defense was nowhere to be found. After five ties to open the match, Iowa hit Nebraska with a 4-1 run to pull ahead 10-6. After trading points for a few rallies, the Huskers cut the deficit to two with kills by Kubik and Stivrins, but Iowa responded with a kill and a block.
After trading sideouts, Kubik put down a kill and then Stivrins and Sun teamed up to block Hannah Clayton for Iowa’s first attack error of the night on their 24th swing. Iowa pushed it back to four with a pair of kills but the Huskers responded with a 7-1 stretch including a 5-0 serving run by sophomore defensive specialist Hayley Densberger.
Iowa scored two straight to cut the deficit to one at 21-20 but the Huskers closed out the set with a 4-0 run featuring two kills apiece by Schwarzenbach and Sweet. After allowing the Hawkeyes to hit .545 through the first 21 rallies, the Huskers held them to minus-.083 the rest of the set.
Overall, Nebraska out-hit Iowa .325 to .217 in game one and got four kills apiece from Schwarzenbach and Kubik.
Nebraska scored three straight to take an early 6-4 lead in the second set, but Iowa responded with four in a row to take control. After a big kill by Sweet, Amiya Jones recorded a kill and an ace back-to-back to put Iowa up by three.
The gap bounced between one and three until the media timeout arrived with Iowa leading 15-12. When play resumed, the Huskers hit the Hawkeyes with a 5-1 run to take a 17-16 lead. After trading sideouts, Iowa ripped off four straight to pull ahead 21-18. Nebraska went to Stivrins on the slide to end the run, but Hames tried to go back to her again on the next point and the two weren’t on the same page, leading to an error.
Stivrins got back on track with a kill on her next set, however, then Nebraska got two straight points with freshman setter Nicole Drewnick at the service line to tie it up at 22-22. Iowa hit Nebraska with a 3-0 run to close it out, but a successful challenge by Cook got a point back for Nebraska. It only delayed the inevitable, however, as Iowa ended it for real on the next point to even the match at 1-1 heading into the intermission.
Nebraska had eight attack errors in the second set and hit .179 while the Hawkeyes hit .190. Kubik added four more kills but also had four of Nebraska’s attack errors plus a serve receive error.
Iowa took an early lead again in the third set, winning four of the first five rallies, but Nebraska turned it around quickly with an 8-2 run capped by four straight. Iowa matched that 4-0 run with one of its own to retake the lead at 10-9.
Ten more ties and four lead changes followed until Iowa pulled ahead 21-19, drawing a timeout from Cook. Out of the break, Hames went to Schwarzenbach for a kill, but Iowa got the sideout and then a pair of aces to pull ahead 24-20.
Nebraska responded with a 5-0 run that included two kills apiece by Stivrins and Kubik and an ace by Knuckles. Knuckles had a chance to serve for the set but she missed and Iowa closed it out with a pair of kills by Griere Hughes.
Nebraska hit .178 with eight more attack errors while Iowa hit .205. Kubik bounced back with five kills and no errors on nine swings and Stivrins put down six kills on seven attempts, but it wasn’t enough.
The Huskers got off to a much better start in the fourth, terminating on five of their first 10 swings to take a 6-2 lead before back-to-back attack errors cut their lead in half. The Huskers pushed their advantage to 10-6 with a 4-0 run served by Densberger that featured a pair of kills by Sun. After a kill by Hughes, Nebraska strung together four more points with Hames at the service line to push the lead to 14-5.
The Hawkeyes responded with runs of 3-0 and then 4-0 to cut their deficit to five at 19-14, but they got no closer than that as the Huskers won six of the last 10 rallies to send the match to game five. Nebraska hit .255 and held Iowa to .132. Sweet added six more kills to her tally and Kubik chipped in five in the fourth.
“This time of year you’re trying to survive and find ways to win, but we’ve got to learn from it,” Cook said. “I was pleased with how we responded in games four and five. We could have really tanked game four after the way we lost those two deuce games. We pride ourselves on winning two-point games … We started passing the ball to Nicklin, out hitters took better swings, we served tougher, we started playing defense … We just started playing Nebraska volleyball.”
Nebraska scored the first three points in game five with with a pair of blocks and a kill by Sweet. Iowa cut it to one at 4-3 but the Huskers dominated from then on, ripping off a 10-2 run to earn match point. A service error put an end to the run but Hames went to Stivrins on the slide to close it out on the next point and she delivered.
The Huskers hit .600 in the fifth set and did not commit a single attack error. The Hawkeyes hit .045 and Cook said he didn’t think they had one in-system pass. Sweet led the Huskers with four kills on six swings in the fifth.
“Just give any push I could, whether that offensively or defensively, on the block, whether that’s slowing a ball down or putting a ball down, that’s a huge momentum shift and a push and it really drags the other team down,” Sweet said. “That was really my mindset going into the fifth set.”
Cook’s message to his team after the match should be a familiar one for Husker fans.
“Any win in the Big Ten is a good win,” Sweet said. “It’s a hard conference, one of the best conferences in the country I think, so really,any of these teams can go five. You’ve seen upsets a lot, this season and last season. It’s just a tough conference so any win is a good win.“
Next weekend will go a long way toward deciding the Big Ten title race as Nebraska hits the road to take on the Golden Gophers on Friday and the Badgers on Sunday.
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.