It’s finals week at Nebraska, which means the 2019-21 academic year is coming to a close. Athletic competition has been over for almost two months, but with those student-athletes who decided to stay in Lincoln to close out the semester preparing to head home, this seems like a good time to reflect back on the year that was for the Huskers.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly a banner year for Nebraska’s athletic program, particularly for the programs I cover — football, volleyball and men’s basketball. Even without any hardware, however, there were still some high points in all three seasons. Let’s relive them, shall we?
Here are the most memorable competitions I covered in person this season.
I’m going to keep this positive and focus on the wins, which doesn’t leave me much to choose from in this particular sport. Nebraska went 3-4 at Memorial Stadium in 2019 and two of them were against Group of Five schools in the nonconference (South Alabama and Northern Illinois).
That leaves Nebraska’s 13-10 win over Northwestern on Oct. 5 as the only viable choice.
The funny thing about this game is I wasn’t even in the stadium for the finish. The volleyball team had a home match that night and it would have been difficult for me to make it over in time for first serve if I had stuck around until he finish and had to deal with post-game traffic. So I hustled over to the Devaney Center and watched the end of the game on my phone from the Devaney Center media work room.
I was there long enough to count this game as one I covered in person, though, and I’ve got a bit of a personal connection. If you don’t remember, this is the game where Adrian Martinez left the game and Noah Vedral had to carry the Huskers home. It’s also the game where walk-on safety turned place-kicker Lane McCallum hit the game-winning field goal.
I’ve known Noah and Lane since they were freshmen or sophomores in high school. I don’t cheer for Nebraska any more, but it was pretty cool for me to see those two — good friends who played basketball during the summer together growing up — share the stage and deliver a win to the program for which they grew up dreaming of playing.
It wasn’t the prettiest game, but it was a rare win in a close game as the Huskers went 2-4 in one-possession games on the season. Wan’Dale Robinson also went off for 167 yards from scrimmage and a score on 14 touches in that game. That kid’s pretty good.
In a shocking turn of events, arguably the best rivalry in college volleyball produced yet another classic as Nebraska beat Penn State in five sets on Nov. 2.
Heading into the match, Penn State was No. 7 in the AVCA Coaches Poll. Nebraska was No. 8 and one game back of the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten standings. There was a lot on the line and the Huskers rose to the challenge.
This match was the fourth straight and seventh in the last 10 meetings that Nebraska and Penn State needed five sets to determine a victor. Nebraska won nine of those 10 meetings. But despite all the shared history, it was two newcomers to the rivalry that shined brightest, and that’s what makes this match so memorable.
The two sides alternated wins to set up a decisive fifth game, and the Huskers were clinging to a 14-13 lead after Penn State saved back-to-back set points when sophomore setter Nicklin Hames went to freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik to seal the game. The freshman from West Des Moines, Iowa, stepped up and put down the match-clinching kill. She finished with 15 kills on .227 hitting and nine digs. Three of those kills came in game five.
Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles, who was learning on the fly all season after playing outside hitter in high school, posted a season-high 24 digs and led a stellar defensive effort that held the high-powered Nittany Lions to .166 hitting.
With a packed and raucous Devaney Center bearing witness, Kubik and Knuckles showed they were ready for the big stage and the big moment.
Also, I want to give an honorable mention shoutout to Nebraska’s five-set win over Minnesota in Minneapolis. Brandon Vogel covered that mach from Maryland (the night before Huskers-Terps football) so I could cover a basketball game, but it was another phenomenal match between two terrific teams.
Unfortunately, like football, I don’t have many games to choose from here. Because of the snow, I chose not to make the drive from Omaha to Lincoln for Nebraska’s home win over Purdue on Dec. 15. That probably would have been a strong contender had I been there, but I’m not counting games I watched on TV.
Nebraska only beat one other high-major team at Pinnacle Bank Arena, which makes the Huskers’ 76-70 win over Iowa the choice almost by default.
The Hawkeyes featured the most dominant center in college basketball. Nebraska featured a four-guard starting lineup and had three freshmen in its eight-man rotation including a walk-on. On paper, the game was a bit of a mismatch.
Yet Iowa sharpshooter CJ Fredrick missed the game and Doc Sadler’s strategy of double- and triple-teaming the 6-foot-11 Luka Garza all night long paid off. Garza still got his with 16 points and 18 rebounds, but he shot just 7-of-15 from the field and the Hawkeyes as a whole shot a frigid 4-of-33 from 3.
Thorir Thorbjarnarson had arguably his best game in a Husker uniform with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting and nine rebounds, leading five huskers in double figures. Cam Mack had a 15-point, 10-assists double-double with just one turnover in 39 minutes.
Beating Iowa is always something worth celebrating for Nebraska fans. Unfortunately, that game proved to be Nebraska’s final win of the season as the Huskers closed out the year on a 17-game losing streak.
BONUS: Boys State Tournament
The 2020 Nebraska Boys State Basketball Tournament was the last live sporting event I covered before the world shut down. It was my seventh state tournament and by far the strangest. With small crowds and the worry that a directive to go home could come down at any moment, it was unlike anything I’ve ever covered.
Thankfully, we managed to make it through all three days of the tournament without incident while most of the other states called off their tournaments.
There were some great games on the first two days, but championship Saturday was a bit of a downer as none of the games were really competitive. Except for one.
Trailing by 14 late in the fourth quarter to the powerhouse Millard North team featuring four Division I prospects including by 5-star junior Hunter Sallis and Stanford signee Max Murrell, Wisconsin-bound Chucky Hepburn and Bellevue West pulled off a miraculous comeback to avenge a regular season loss to the Mustangs and claim the Class A state title.
Bellevue Wests’s run included two big-time 3s by freshman Josiah Dotzler, clutch free-throws by junior Frankie Fidler and defensive stop on the last possession to take home the trophy.