No. 6 Nebraska closed out the regular season with a strong defensive effort on Saturday night, sweeping Ohio State at the Devaney Center.
The Huskers beat the Buckeyes 25-15, 25-16, 25-19 in front of a crowd of 8,170 to finish 25-4 overall and 17-3 in Big Ten play.
“I thought our team played really hard tonight and was inspired and were on a mission tonight,” Coach John Cook said. “That was good to see because I didn't see it all week and I didn’t see it yesterday. I think they pulled out of the slump or the funk or whatever you want to call it. I thought it was a really good match. Ohio State played really hard but we just exceed really well defensively tonight. I get the most joy when we really shut teams down and suffocate them and I thought we did that tonight.”
The Huskers out-hit the Buckeyes .242 to .086 despite finishing with two fewer kills as Ohio State had 25 attack errors and 10 service errors.
“There wasn’t a lot of flow for either team tonight because there were a lot of crazy rallies, crazy balls coming over, so just trying to get good swings and there was a lot of out-of-system stuff tonight for both teams,” Cook said. “That’s why we only had 34 kills and won the match. They made a lot of errors and we shut them down. They were just trying to blast off our block and were missing quite a bit.”
Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun led the Huskers with 12 kills on .310 hitting and five digs. Freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik overcame a rough start to finish with seven kills, 12 digs and an ace. Sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach chipped in seven kills on 11 swings (.636 hitting), four digs and three blocks.
Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames noticed her 15th double-double of the season with 24 assists and 12 digs. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles chipped in 10 digs and six assists. Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins had a season-low two kills but also had a match-high four blocks, two of which were solo stuffs.
“Lauren had a really good night blocking tonight,” Cook said. “Lauren created a lot of problems. They’re usually really good at killing out of the middle and Lauren just completely shut it down.”
Nebraska scored the first three points of the match with a kill from Schwarzenbach and a pair of errors by Ohio State, but then the Huskers started misfiring as well and surrendered a 4-0 run with four straight attack errors of their own to give the Buckeyes a 5-4 lead.
Nebraska turned the tables with a 7-2 run capped by a block from Stivrins that got the Devaney Center on its feet. After an Ohio State timeout, the Buckeyes ripped off three in a row to pull within one at 11-10. A couple of sideouts followed and then Sun took over, ripping off five kills during an 8-0 run to give the Huskers a 20-11 lead.
“Lexi carried us game one,” Cook said. “Lexi was really good tonight attacking. She hit some really nice shots tonight.”
Nebraska cruised to the finish from there for the 10-point win. The Huskers hit .226 and held the Buckeyes to minus-.025 with nine attack errors. Sun recorded six kills on eight swings and Schwarzenbach went 3-for-3.
Sun and Schwarzenbach set the tone in set two as well as Sun opened the game with a kill and Schwarzenbach added a block assist and a kill for another 3-0 Nebraska lead. Ohio State hung around for a bit as it trailed 7-5 before Nebraska put together an 11-2 stretch including a 6-0 run with Hames serving to take an 18-7 lead.
Nebraska’s lead grew to 12 before the Buckeyes tried to stage a late rally, pulling to within seven at 23-16. However, an Ohio State service error and an ace by Kubik sent the Huskers into the intermission with a 2-0 lead.
Nebraska hit .192 in the second set with just seven kills but held Ohio State to .047 thanks to 11 attack errors. Schwarzenbach added three more kills to her tally to give her six on nine attempts. She terminated on her first five swings before Ohio State finally dug her. Nebraska out-blocked Ohio State five to one in game two.
“We did a really good job [blocking],” Schwarzenbach said. “We’ve been preparing a lot for this team knowing that they have multiple people that play, so we were just ready to adjust to whoever they were going to put in and I think we did a really good job of that.”
Ohio State struck first in set three, opening the game with a pair of kills. The Huskers tied it up briefly at 5-5 but Ohio State responded with a 4-1 run. Nebraska scored two in a row but Ohio State answered with two straight to push the lead back to two.
Nebraska pulled ahead 13-11 with a 5-0 run served by Hames that included a pair of kills from junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet. After trading sideouts, Ohio State regained the lead with three in a row. Kubik tied it up again, but Knuckles gave the Buckeyes their last lead of the match with a service error. Nebraska took control for good with a 5-0 run including three straight Buckeye attack errors.
The Huskers won five of the next eight rallies to complete the sweep as Ohio State served into the net on match point. Both sides had 15 kills in the third but the Buckeyes recorded two more attack errors, two more service errors and two more ball-handling errors. Kubik came alive with six of her seven kills in the final frame.
After giving up .331 hitting to Wisconsin last Saturday, the Huskers settled back in defensively this week and Hames said she likes where the team is at heading into the postseason.
“It always gives you confidence when you’re out there getting blocks and awesome digs,” Hames said. “We really work hard in the gym at blocking and defense and it’s one of our main goals every day is to be the top defensive team. Having a great match like this is great to get on stride going into the NCAA Tournament.”
Wisconsin swept Rutgers and Minnesota beat Penn State in four sets on Saturday night, clinching the Big Ten title for the Badgers at 18-2. The Huskers, Nittany Lions and Golden Gophers all finished in a tie for second at 17-3, although the Huskers went 2-0 against the other two.
“I think if you go through this conference and you finish top two where we’re going to finish, that’s a big statement,” Cook said. “I don’t know if people really understand how tough this conference is, but look at the last few years of results. We beat several conference champions in our nonconference — San Diego, Creighton and Denver. I think this team’s done a really nice job and they’ve played pretty consistent. We weren’t ready for Stanford when we played them and Wisconsin played great against us both times, but I think they understand the level they’re going to have to play at to make a big run here. I feel our body of work’s been pretty good.”
Now the Huskers will wait for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to evaluate that body of work. Sunday’s tournament selection show will begin at 7:30 p.m. CT on ESPNU.
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.