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Nebraska Cornhuskers Keonilei Akana serves the volleyball
Photo Credit: John Peterson

Strong Serving Leads Huskers to Four-Set Win Over Wolverines

March 25, 2021

No. 5 Nebraska overcame one of its slowest starts of the season to beat Michigan in four sets at Cliff Keen Arena on Thursday night.

The Huskers (13-2) took down the Wolverines 19-25, 25-16, 25-15, 25-20. Nebraska hit .232 while holding Michigan (4-6) to .154.

“First of all, it’s a great win,” Coach John Cook aid during his post-game radio interview on the Huskers Sports Network. “I just talked to the team and we talked about they showed a lot of resiliency tonight. We started off awfully; it’s the worst I’ve seen us play all year. But I’ve seen that here before … It’s a different gym, and it’s small and the lighting and the balls we play with, everything’s different. So it took us a while to settle in and just get used to it. But I thought we got better as the match went on.”

The Huskers served a season-high 10 aces with just five errors, and freshman Keonilei Akana accounted for five of them. Senior Hayley Densberger, who missed Nebraska’s match against Iowa on Saturday because of contact tracing, returned to action and served two aces.

“Hayley Densberger came in and I thought turned games around; her and Keonilei serving really, really frustrated Michigan,” Cook said.

Cook let senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins serve last week against Iowa (to mixed results) but gave Densberger a chance on Thursday, and she delivered. The senior walk-on out of Malcolm High School added a season-high eight digs as well.

“Hayley was really thumping it in practice, we noticed, and her balls were really moving,” Cook said. “Again, these balls are a little bit different so we were trying to figure out who had the best-looking serve, and Hayley’s was really moving, and you saw the results. She ran a ton of points.”

Lexi Sun led the Huskers with 13 kills on .225 hitting, snapping her streak of seven straight matches at .250 or better. Madi Kubik and Stivrins had 10 kills apiece while Kubik added 12 digs for the double-double. Nicklin Hames led the Huskers with 34 assists and 16 digs and tied her career-high with five kills on nine attempts (no errors). Akana added 12 digs and four assists to her five aces.

Nebraska recorded 11 blocks led by six apiece from Jazz Sweet and Kayla Caffey and five from Stivrins. After a big match against Iowa on Saturday, Sweet struggled offensively against Michigan as she hit just .125, but Cook credited her for shutting down Michigan’s top attacker in Paige Jones who hit minus-.027.

Outside hitter Jess Mruzik, the second-ranked recruit in the 2020 class, led Michigan with 20 kills on .259 hitting, six digs, four blocks and two aces.

Michigan jumped out to a 4-0 lead and never looked back. The Huskers struggled in serve receive and their offense was out of sync all game. The Wolverines pulled ahead 10-4, then stretched the lead out to 10 at 16-6 with a 6-1 run.

Nebraska cleaned things up a bit and started chipping away at the lead down the stretch, but the deficit was too much to overcome. After hitting in the negative for much of the set, the Huskers started terminating better down the stretch to finish at .111. Michigan hit .226 and served three aces.

“I just told them ‘New match. We’re starting over and here we go: we’ve got to win three,’” Cook said. “So that was just the mindset, because they knew they were stinking the place up. It didn’t do any good to harp on them. I reminded them of what we needed to do.”

The Huskers carried the momentum into the third set as the Huskers opened with a 5-0 run served by Akana. Mruzik got going with three kills in four rallies to make it 7-4 Nebraska, but the Huskers responded with an 8-0 run served by Hames.

The Huskers pushed their lead out to 13 at 19-6. After recording nine attack errors in the first set, the Huskers didn’t miss until their 21st swing of game two as the Wolverines blocked Stivrins, part of a 4-0 Wolverines run that made it 21-12 Nebraska. Michigan made one more push late with a 3-0 run, but the Huskers sealed it with a kill by Caffey and an ace by Sun.

The Huskers hit .290 with just two errors in the second set while holding the Wolverines to .098. Nebraska’s two middles had 11 kills and three errors in the first two sets while the three outsides combined for 11 kills and eight errors.

The third set began with a service error by Michigan and two aces by Akana, but Michigan tied it up at 3-3 then took the lead at 7-5 with a 4-0 run, the first lead change of the night. The Huskers responded with their own 4-0 run including an ace by Densberger. Jess Robinson terminated to pull Michigan within one at 9-8, but Nebraska controlled the action the rest of the way, outscoring the Wolverines 16-7 the rest of the way.

Nebraska’s previous season high for aces was eight, and the Huskers surpassed that with nine in just the second and third sets. The Huskers hit .265 while holding Michigan to .161 hitting and eight kills. Sun got going with five kills and no errors on 12 swings in the third set.

The fourth set was the most competitive of the night, featuring five lead changes and 10 ties. The lead changed hands for the last time when Nebraska used a 4-0 run to pull ahead 14-12. The Wolverines cut the deficit to one three times before the Huskers pulled ahead 19-15 with a 3-0 run featuring kills by Caffey, Kubik and Sweet. Michigan scored the next two points, but that was as close as the Wolverines got as the Huskers closed out the sweep.

Nebraska hit .270 in the fourth set and held Michigan to .174.

The Huskers and Wolverines will run it back an hour earlier on Friday as their second match is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network.

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