Slow starts and crunch time struggles led to No. 4 Nebraska’s first loss of the season as the Huskers fell to No. 5 Minnesota in four sets at the Devaney Center on Friday night.
The Golden Gophers improved to 9-0 this season by handling Nebraska (6-1) 25-15, 20-25, 26-24, 25-23. Nebraska faced a six-point deficit within the first 10 rallies in each of the first three sets and fell behind 4-1 out of the gates in game four as well.
John Cook said earlier in the week that Minnesota opposite hitter Stephanie Samedy was playing like the best player in the country, and she certainly looked the part Friday night as Nebraska had no answer for her. She finished with 27 kills on .379 hitting, her fifth straight match with 19-plus kills. She also had 10 digs and five block assists.
As a team, Minnesota blocked Nebraska 20 times, holding the Huskers to .150 hitting. Nebraska had four aces and six errors, while the Gophers aced the Huskers five times with three errors.
Lauren Stivrins led Nebraska with 16 kills on .367 hitting and Madi Kubik added 15 kills on .300 hitting. Nebraska’s next most efficient attacker was setter Nicklin Hames with 4 kills on .167 hitting. Hames led the Huskers with 18 digs and 44 assists. Lexi Sun had 11 kills and 11 digs but balanced that out with 10 attack errors.
Cook chose to start with senior Jazz Sweet at opposite hitter after sophomore Riley Zuhn had started the previous six matches, though Sweet played quite a bit last Saturday against Rutgers after Zuhn got off to a slow start.
Sun opened the match with a kill on the first rally, but things went south in a hurry for the Huskers as Minnesota hit them with a 6-0 run. Nebraska rallied to cut it to three at 10-7 but unraveled from there.
A combination of poor passing and absent back-row coverage allowed the Gophers to pick Nebraska apart. An ace by Hames made the score 15-10 Minnesota, and the Gophers responded with a 7-0 run to blow the game wide open.
During the Minnesota run, Cook sent Zuhn and Callie Schwarzenbach into the game to replace Sweet and Kayla Caffey, and the subs combined for three straight errors to cap off the Gopher run as nothing Cook tried seemed to work.
The Huskers showed some brief signs of life late, saving three set points, but Minnesota closed it out on the fourth attempt. The Gophers hit .278 with five blocks while the Huskers hit just .056.
Cook went back to his starters in set two but Minnesota opened the second set with a 3-0 run then pulled ahead 8-2 before the Huskers settled in. Zuhn replaced Sweet early and played the rest of the night.
Nebraska responded with a 4-0 run to get themselves back into the game and continued to battle from there, tying it at 13-13 before taking their first lead since the opening point of the match with a 4-0 run that made it 17-14 Nebraska.
The Huskers pulled ahead by as much as five at 22-17 before Minnesota ripped off three straight to make it a two-point game, but Kubik ended the run by blasting a kill off a Gopher in the back row and back-to-back Minnesota miscues closed it out.
After recording just one block in the first set, the Huskers got tougher at the net in the second with three stuffs and held the Gophers to .073 hitting. Stivrins had six kills and Kubik added five as the Huskers notched 17 kills, though they only hit .188.
CC McGraw, who gave the Huskers problems most of the night, served the Gophers to a 7-1 lead early in the third set. Nebraska cut the lead in half before a couple of errors by Sun gave the Gophers an 11-6 advantage, leading to a timeout from Cook.
The Huskers locked in when play resumed and ripped off a 9-1 stretch to pull ahead 15-12. Minnesota tied it at 17-17 and 19-19 before the Huskers surged ahead to earn a pair of set points at 24-22.
Sun hit long, however, and Samedy smashed back-to-back kills to turn the tables and give Minnesota set point. Unlike Nebraska, the Gophers capitalized with a block to take a 2-1 lead in the match.
Minnesota opened the fourth by winning four of the first five rallies, but a 4-0 run including a pair of aces from freshman Keonilei Akana put the Huskers ahead 7-5. Nebraska pushed its lead to three at 9-6 with a kill by Stivrins, but Samedy put down a kill then served Minnesota to a 7-0 run and a 13-9 lead.
Sun finally snapped the run with a kill, but the next four rallies included a Minnesota ace and two service errors for Nebraska as the Gophers took a 16-11 lead. After a couple of sideouts, the Huskers stormed back to tie the set with a 6-1 run. Ties at 20-20, 22-22 and 23-23 followed, but Minnesota freshman Melani Shaffmaster caught the Huskers off-guard with a setter dump to earn match point and Sun hit long on the next point to end it.
The Huskers will have all of Saturday to think about what went wrong as the two teams will reconvene early on Sunday for an 11 a.m.CT start to close out the weekend series. Big Ten Network will televise the match.
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.