No. 5 Nebraska will limp into the postseason as the Huskers dropped their final two regular season matches to finish 24-5 overall and 16-4 in the Big Ten.
Down two of their four seniors on senior night, the Huskers fell to No. 9 Minnesota 25-22, 25-23, 25-22 on Saturday night. After losing Kenzie Knuckles to a torn ACL earlier in the week, Nicklin Hames missed Saturday’s match while feeling under the weather.
“We had to change our lineup again,” Coach John Cook said. “We switched setters, who went what rotations with what hitters. We flipped hitters. So all kinds of changes, and I thought we came out playing great, but then you saw what happens when you don’t practice. You’re not in a rhythm. That Minnesota lineup has been doing that for the whole season and they’re in a very good rhythm and know where everybody is. We just got discombobulated and lost that first game with a big run.
“But we played hard, we competed hard, we didn’t give up, and so our players deserve some credit for that. Minnesota deserves credit for winning that match. They played really well tonight and it’s just been a tough week for our for our players.”
Kennedi Orr (18 assists, six digs, three service errors) started at setter with Anni Evans (15 assists, 10 digs) coming in off the bench. Cook also swapped the opposite hitters in the lineup as Lindsay Krause started alongside Orr and Whitney Lauenstein came off the bench with Evans.
The lineup change paid dividends on the right as Lauenstein (.364 hitting) and Krause (.240 hitting) led Nebraska with 11 kills apiece. However, the rest of the team combined for 19 kills on .065 hitting. Nebraska hit .153 overall with Minnesota blocks accounting for 10 of the Huskers’ 22 attack errors.
“We mainly look at passing, where we wanted to try to have Madi in the back row more. We wanted to have Whitney hit off Anni, so that was flipped there because Lindsay has been hitting off a Kennedi and we flipped Kennedi’s rotations. She took Nicklin’s rotations and Anni’s used to those rotations when she played, because she hasn’t played so I wanted to try to keep it as simple for her…
“I feel for our players because it’s so hard to get a great team going. And six days ago we were humming, and then you can see one player, one situation, two players just changes everything. That’s why volleyball is an ultimate team game. It’s six people, 900 square feet, the ball’s moving fast.”
Lexi Rodriguez, Ally Batenhorst and Madi Kubik all finished with 11 digs.
Minnesota hit .243 behind 15 kills on .273 hitting from the Big Ten’s kills leader, Taylor Landfair. Carter Booth, a 6-foot-7 freshman middle blocker, added seven kills on .636 hitting and eight blocks.
Nebraska jumped out to 5-2 lead early, then used a 5-1 run after the Golden Gophers pulled within one to build an 11-6 advantage. After trading sideouts for a bit, Nebraska used a 6-2 run to open up a 19-11 lead as the right sides and middles continue to provide almost all of Nebraska’s offense.
After a clean start to the set, however, Nebraska started missing on swings, opening the door for a Minnesota comeback. The Golden Gophers outscored Nebraska 13-2 over the next 15 rallies to earn set point. Kubik finally ended the run with her first kill of the match but followed it with a service error to hand Minnesota the set.
“Minnesota made some great plays and we just we couldn’t find a kill,” Cook said. “We started pressing. I think Kennedi was setting those rotations and we missed some passes and then they pressed more. I can’t remember the last time somebody made a run like that on us. But again, that’s just not preparing well enough and being in a rhythm and playing together enough in those lineups and those rotations.”
Nebraska hit .250 in the first set with five errors in the last 14 rallies after just one in the first 33. Krause, Bekka Allick and Lauenstein notched four kills apiece, but the the two outside hitters combined for just two kills on 14 swings. Minnesota hit .412 with just two attack errors including none in the last 33 rallies. Landfair had five kills on six swings.
The second set saw seven ties and three lead changes before Minnesota surged ahead with a 5-0 run to take a 12-9 lead. The Golden Gophers built their advantage up to four and seven straight sideouts followed before Nebraska scored two in a row to cut the deficit in half at 21-19.
Back-to-back Minnesota blocks stretched it back to four, however. After a kill from Allick, the teams traded service errors, sending Allick back to serve with Nebraska trailing 24-21. She sent two great serves over the net (one for an ace and one that led to a Lauenstein kill after the Gophers struggled to pass) to cut the deficit to one and draw a Minnesota timeout. She hit long out of the break, however, handing Minnesota a 2-0 match lead.
Nebraska hit just .081 in the set with nine attack errors, six of which were Minnesota blocks. Batenhorst and Kubik combined for three kills and three errors on 13 swings. The Gophers hit .171 as Landfair added six more kills to her total.
Nebraska’s struggles continued into the third set as the Gophers used a 4-0 run early to take a 6-2 lead. However, after trading points, Nebraska ripped off seven straight points with Evans serving to take a 10-7 lead.
Evans missed her next serve after a Minnesota timeout, but it didn’t halt the Huskers’ momentum as the continued to add to their lead, pushing it to six at 14-8. Minnesota began chipping away from there, however, eventually pulling ahead with a 6-0 run that made it 20-17 Gophers.
Krause slammed home a kill to end the run, but Minnesota won four of the next five rallies to earn match point. The Huskers extended the match with kills by Lauenstein and Kubik and an ace by Batenhorst, but Minnesota closed it out on its fourth match-point attempt with a kill from freshman Mckenna Wucherer.
Nebraska hit .128 in the third with seven more errors. Lauenstein and Krause led the way with four kills apiece. Minnesota hit .174.
After the match, Nebraska recognized its four seniors with a good number of fans sticking around to celebrate them. Emotions ran high as each of the seniors took turns walking out with their families and sharing embraces with teammates and coaches.
“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Lauenstein said. “It’s kind of just heartbreaking because they’re all like family to us. I know they’re not dying or anything like that; some people might be like ‘You’re overdramatic,’ but you have no idea how much time we spend with these women every single day of our lives. They’re like sisters to us and not being able to do that next year is really heartbreaking. They just have such an impact on our program and who we are as peoples. It’s really sad.”
With the regular season complete, Nebraska will learn its postseason draw on Sunday with the NCAA Tournament Selection Show scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. CT.
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.