Lauren Stivrins picked up where she left off last year in the NCAA Tournament, leading the fifth-seeded and sixth-ranked Huskers to a sweep over MAC champion Ball State in the first round on Friday night.
The junior middle blocker recorded 11 kills on .667 hitting and five blocks as the Huskers (26-4) took down the Cardinals (20-12) 25-13, 25-18, 25-10 in front of a crowd of 8,204 at the Devaney Center. The win advances Nebraska to the second round to take on Missouri (22-7), a rematch of last year’s second-round matchup at the Devaney Center. The Huskers swept the Tigers in that one.
Last season, Stivrins averaged 3.0 kills per set on .504 hitting in the postseason capped by a 19-kill performance in the national championship loss to Stanford.
“It’s fun when she just takes over the match and dominates,” sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said. “She can really do that and it’s a pretty thing to see. When she’s on that slide, it’s hard to stop and she was doing that tonight. We were clicking and it was working.”
Newly minted Big Ten Freshman of the Year Madi Kubik tied Stivrins for game-high honors with 11 kills and finished without an error for the first time this season, hitting a season-high .688.
“I just think our mindset going out there was to be aggressive and just take big swings, in system and out of system, so just doing that and trusting it,” Kubik said.
Coach John Cook used his first and only challenge of the night with the Huskers leading 22-11 in the third set after a swing by Kubik was called out. Upon the review, the officials saw a touch and overturned the point.
“I was really happy that we got it,” Kubik said. “I knew I got her but I didn’t know if they were going to be able to see it. That was cool.”
As a team, Nebraska hit .425 with 45 kills and just eight attack errors. The Huskers out-blocked the Cardinals 8.5 to zero and out-dug them 44 to 29 as Nebraska held Ball State to .010 hitting.
“It’s a good first-round win,” Cook said. “Ball State came out doing some good things. We made some adjustments and I think pretty much suffocated them with our serve, block and defense which was great. I thought we hit really well tonight, made a lot of really good shots, were low error. I thought Nicklin really moved the ball around well to create a lot of opportunities for our hitters.”
Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun chipped in nine kills on .333 hitting, seven digs and three blocks. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles posted a match-high 13 digs and six assists in her postseason debut. Hames did a bit of everything with 34 assists, eight digs, four blocks and four kills, her second-highest kill total of the season.
“They run a 6-2, so they’re not really used to seeing the setter dump,” Hames said. “They don’t really see it in practice, so that was kind of in the game plan to go out there and attack as much as possible.”
After a couple of ties to open the mach, Nebraska used a 5-0 run to take a 7-3 lead. The Huskers pushed that advantage to six with a 6-4 stretch in which all four Ball State points came on Nebraska errors (two attack, two service).
Ball State recorded its first kill since the third point of the match to make it 13-8 and followed it up with an ace, but that’s as close as the Cardinals got the rest of the set. After trading kills, Nebraska ripped off a 6-0 run to double up Ball State at 20-10. The Cardinals scored three of the next four points but the huskers slammed the door shut from there with a 4-0 run to end it capped by a double block from Hames and sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach.
Nebraska hit .548 with 19 kills and just two errors while holding the Cardinals to .071 hitting and six kills. Sun led the Huskers with five kills while Kubik and Stivrins added four apiece. Hames dished out 15 assists and had three kills herself.
After going back and forth early in set two, Nebraska pulled ahead 12-8 with a 6-1 run that featured some tough serving by sophomore Hayley Densberger, including an ace. The Cardinals cut the deficit to three a few times but Nebraska responded with a 3-0 run to push it six at 18-12. Another 3-0 run gave the Huskers their biggest lead of the set at 22-15 and they traded points from there. Sun finished off the game with her eighth kill of the match.
Nebraska hit .333 in game two and held the Cardinals to .029 with nine attack errors. Stivrins had five kills on six swings to push her total to nine through two games.
Ball State won the first point of the third set but the Huskers ripped off six straight after that with Sun at the service line and never looked back. Nebraska put together an 8-1 run to stretch the lead to 12 at 17-5 and cruised to the finish line from there. Sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller served her second ace of the night on match point to close it out.
Kubik put down five kills on seven swings as Nebraska hit .379 in game three. The Huskers recorded four blocks and held the Cardinals to minus-.059 hitting.
“We’re super excited for the tournament and for it to start,” Hames said. “We just worked really hard in practice this week to get better and I think that really showed out on the court. We put a lot of work in and for it to show, it feels really good.”
In the first match of the day at the Devaney Center, Missouri made short work of Northern Iowa, sweeping the Panthers 25-11, 25-13, 25-14 in 73 minutes. The Tigers hit .363 led by Ayanna Omazic with 10 kills on .500 hitting, six digs and five blocks. Leketor Member-Mene and Kylie Deberg chipped in nine kills apiece while setter Andrea Fuentes had a double-double with 24 assists and 11 digs.
“We’ve worked on them all week,” Cook said about Missouri. “They’ve seen them on video; they know what they’ve got and the players that they have. They’re third in the nation in attack efficiency, so we know what we’re up against.”
The Huskers and Tigers will square off at the Devaney Center on Saturday night for a trip to the Sweet 16. First serve is set for 7 p.m. on NET and streaming on BTN+ (free for the tournament matches).
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.