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Padding the Stats: Reflecting on the Best Nebraska Contests of 2021

January 05, 2022

We’re less than a week into January, which makes this a great time for reflection on the past year.

A relatively slow 2020 (for obvious reasons) led to a packed 2021 sports calendar for me including two volleyball seasons, a full-sized football season and 30 basketball games and more high school games than I can recall.

Let’s look back on some of the best games I had the good fortune to cover in person in each of my beats.

Volleyball

Let’s start with the sport in which I had the toughest time narrowing things down: volleyball. First of all, Nebraska played 53 matches in 2021 thanks to the spring season, winning 42 of them.

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to start with a loss. Last month’s five-set thriller against Wisconsin for the national championship has to go at the top of the list of best overall games I covered last year. That game featured two titans of the sport trading blows and going right down to the wire. The Huskers didn’t get the title, but they certainly proved they belonged on that floor with the extremely veteran-laden Badgers.

Honorable mention goes to the Badgers’ semifinal five-set marathon against Dani Busboom Kelly’s Louisville Cardinals.

Other matches that come to mind from this past season:

>> 3-2 win over Omaha: The Huskers survived an upset bid from their neighbors to the northeast as the Mavericks pushed the Huskers to a fifth game before Nebraska took control and dominated the extra frame. The Mavericks went on to have a great season and showed a glimpse of their potential in that match.

>> 3-0 win at Creighton: Nebraska set the tone for an incredible defensive season with what the Huskers did against the high-powered Bluejays at CHI Health Center Omaha.

>> 3-0 win over Penn State: Matches with Penn State usually go the distance for the Huskers, but not this time. Nebraska flexed its defensive muscles and completely shut down the Penn State attack, blowing the Nittany Lions out in the first set then winning two deuce games to complete the sweep.

And here are a few that come to mind from the spring season:

>> 3-0 win over Minnesota: After suffering their first loss of the season to a talented Minnesota team, the Huskers turned around two days later and swept the Golden Gophers in an emphatic fashion, outscoring them by 21 points in the three games. The outside hitters (Lexi Sun and Madi Kubik) and middle blockers (Lauren Stivrins and Kayla Caffey) all had great games as the Huskers hit .300 as a team.

— 3-2 win over Ohio State: I’d be remiss not to include Nebraska’s reverse sweep over a top-15 Ohio State team that featured a monster match from Stivrins (18 kills on .424 hitting and six blocks).

>> 3-0 win over Baylor: The Huskers swept a really talented Baylor team in the NCAA Tournament at CHI Health Center Omaha to advance to the regional final, and they did it without Stivrins.

Football

I didn’t cover any Nebraska football games in person in 2020 as the program cut down on the number of media members in the press box for social distancing purposes, so it was great to be back at Memorial Stadium this season.

Unfortunately, the Huskers only won three games. On the flip side, I was there for all three of them. None of them were against noteworthy opponents, but the one that stands out was the biggest win of the year: Nebraska’s 56-7 domination of Northwestern.

The Wildcats were down significantly this season after losing so much from last year’s team, but Nebraska still made them look much worse than they were. For one night, everything clicked for the Huskers and it was a lot of fun to watch, especially during Jaquez Yant’s 64-yard run. Nebraska racked up 657 yards of offense with 19 different players gaining yardage.

That win didn’t ultimately prove to be a sign of things to come as the Huskers lost the rest of their games, but for that one night, it looked like the program had turned a corner.

Unfortunately, the second game that jumps to mind was a loss as the Huskers nearly knocked off a top-10 team in Michigan the week after beating Northwestern. After falling behind in the first half, Adrian Martinez led a rally that saw the Huskers take a lead in the fourth quarter. The Huskers lost 32-29, but it was probably the most impressive performances I saw from the team considering the opponent. That was a great game that just didn’t have a great ending for Nebraska fans.

Men’s Basketball

Unfortunately, it barely takes two hands for me to count the number of wins for Fred Hoiberg’s team that I got to cover in person between the end of the 2020-21 and the beginning of the 2021-22 seasons. Even so, there were a couple that stand out, and they happened in the same week.

Late last season, Nebraska had lost five in a row and 14 of its previous 15 in late February after navigating an insanely congested schedule forced by the team’s month-long COVID-19 pause. The Huskers were worn-down and under-manned.

Even so, they rallied to beat Minnesota 78-74 on the team’s senior night, and they did it with a total team effort. Six players finished with between nine and 14 points, and leading scorer Teddy Allen wasn’t one of them. Nebraska put forth one of its best offensive showings of the season, shooting 54.5% from the field including 9-17 from 3, and it survived a 41-point explosion from Gopher point guard Marcus Carr.

Two days later, Nebraska blitzed Rutgers in the first half and cruised through the second to a 72-51 in the team’s final home game of the season. Allen had left the team, but Lat Mayen went off for a career-high 25 points on 9-of-11 from the field, 5-of-7 from 3 and 2-of-2 from the line. The Huskers shot over 50% from the field again as 10 different players found the scoring column.

Unfortunately, 2022 hasn’t gotten off to a great start as the Huskers are already 0-1 after letting a late lead slip away against No. 13 Ohio State, but here’s to hoping I’ll have more wins to choose from when I write this column a year from now.

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