Life in the Big Ten is hard for a young team, as No. 9 Nebraska has found out over the last few weeks. After a brief respite in the form of a match against an unranked Ohio State team on Wednesday, a four-set win, Nebraska was back on the court against a top-10 team on Saturday night and dropped a four-set decision to No. 6 Illinois in front of 8,343 at the Devaney Center.
Scores in Illinois’ favor were 27-29, 25-19, 27-25 and 25-22.
“I’m proud of how hard we competed tonight. Illinois did a great job. [Jordyn] Poulter, [Jacqueline] Quade, big-time players; [Ali] Bastianelli, those are three great players,” Coach John Cook said. “We just have got to learn to be better at the end of games and big points, but we competed really hard, we’re doing that and I have to give our team credit for that. Now we’ve just got to compete smarter, especially after 20 points.”
The loss drops Nebraska to 16-6 overall and 7-5 in the Big Ten. Before this season, the Huskers hadn’t lost more than four matches total or three league matches since 2014. The Illini, under former Nebraska assistant Chris Tamas, improved to 20-3 and 9-3.
Nebraska posted a four-set rally scoring school record with 99 digs, but Illinois one-upped the Huskers with 104 digs of their own led by 32 from sophomore libero Morgan O’Brien, who Tamas called his most improved player from the start of the season.
Senior libero Kenzie Maloney led the Huskers with 24 digs. Freshman setter Nicklin Hames added 23 digs, 45 assists and four aces. Freshman defensive specialist Megan Miller posted a carrier-high 14 digs.
Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke led the Huskers offensively with 17 kills to go with 14 digs and sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sun added 15 kills and 20 digs, but the duo also combined for 18 errors. Sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stivrins notched nine kills on a team-best .292 hitting and five blocks including two solo.
As a team, the Huskers hit .099 and allowed the Illini to hit .187. Nebraska had eight aces to six service errors compared to five aces and 13 errors by the Illini, but Illinois put down 11 more kills.
After a back-and-forth tussle early on, Nebraska pulled ahead 12-8 with a 3-0 run. Illinois rallied to tie it at 14-all, however, and the teams alternated the next 10 points before Nebraska managed to put two consecutive points together to pull ahead 21-19. Illinois answered with two straight to tie it again, but Nebraska won a long rally then get a solo stuff from Stivrins to give the Huskers set point.
Nebraska let Illinois back into it as the Illini tied it up at 24-all. In total, the Illini saved five set points before the Huskers finally managed to finish them off with a kill by Schwarzenbach then a double-block by Schwarzenbach and Sweet.
Sun got off to a hot start with four kills on her first six swings but slowed down after that and Nebraska’s other hitters, Foecke and Sweet, combined to produce just one kill and four errors on 27 attempts. Stivrins picked up the slack, however, with five kills including three big ones down the stretch.
Foecke woke up in the second set, putting down three quick kills to give the Huskers a 5-2 lead early. Illinois tied it up at 6-6 before the Huskers pulled ahead again with two straight. The the Illini took over, ripping off five straight to turn the tables and Nebraska never got back into it. Illinois stretched the lead out to as much as seven at 21-14. An Illinois service error opened the door just a crack for the Huskers as they followed it up with back-to-back aces by Hames and then a kill by Sun to make it 21-18, but that’s as close as they got as Illinois closed it out on a 4-1 run.
Illinois out-hit Nebraska .267 to .000 in the set. Foecke had six kills but the rest of the Huskers combined for just three.
The Huskers continued to look out of sync to start the third set as the Illini jumped out to a 9-6 lead with a 3-0 run and forced an early Nebraska timeout. Foecke and Sun teamed up to power Nebraska to a 5-0 run that gave the Huskers a 12-10 lead. Nebraska bumped its advantage up to three a few times before a 7-1 Illinois run turned the tables once again and put the Illini up 21-18.
Nebraska fought back to tie it up at 23-all then took set point with an ace from Hames. Once again, Nebraska failed to capitalize as an attack error by Sun knotted the game again. Sun got the point back with a kill to create set point again, but this time Foecke misfired and Illinois closed it out with two kills by Jacqueline Quade who had 10 of her match-high 23 kills in the third set.
Illinois out-hit Nebraska .298 to .173 in the game despite seven kills on 15 swings from Sun.
The Huskers started strong in the fourth set with a 4-0 run served by Sun and stretched the lead to 8-3. Nebraska still led 11-7 when Illinois ripped off seven straight to pull ahead 14-11. Nebraska gradually worked its way back to tie it up at 18-18 and 19-19. The teams traded 3-30 runs to create another tie at 22-all but then it fell apart for Nebraska with a service error by Hames into the net and then back-to-back blocks by Illinois to seal the match in four. The game-sealing blocks were the only two Illinois recorded in the fourth set and the error by Hames was her only one of the match.
“There’s a typical game: we serve into the net and get blocked twice,” Cook said. “That’s three straight points, and game two we gave up runs of points and game three we had two swings to win it. You’ve got to make them happen.”
The match was Nebraska’s first at home since Oct. 10, a sweep against Indiana. The Huskers had played their last four matches on the road including trips to Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota — all top 10 teams. Cook said fatigue probably had at least a little to do with the team’s difficulties.
“We had a really hard time killing the ball in practice yesterday, we had a hard time tonight,” Cook said. “Illinois just played three home matches in a row; we played four on the road. So you tell me who has the advantage coming into this with the scheduling. Maybe it is a little fatigue. I guess we’ll find out. Now we’re at home for two matches next weekend. But we’ve got to use that to make us better and tougher.”
Nebraska will host Penn State on Friday at 7 p.m. on BTN. The Nittany Lions beat the Huskers at University Park in a five-set match on Oct. 13. The Huskers will close out the weekend on Saturday against Rutgers at 7 p.m. on NET.