No. 9 Nebraska bounced back with a 3-0 sweep at No. 25 Illinois on Thursday night as Lexi Sun returned to the starting lineup.
The senior outside hitter made her first start in Big Ten play as Nebraska (17-5, 11-2 Big Ten) swept the Illini (16-8, 8-5) for the second time this season (25-20, 25-20, 25-21). Sun led the Huskers with 11 kills on .303 hitting with just one error. She added four digs and two blocks to her stat line.
“She’s finally been turning it up in practice,” Coach John Cook said during his post-match interview on Big Ten Network. “We got her some time last match, and I just like her demeanor right now. She’s on a mission and I was really expecting her to play well tonight.”
Madi Kubik matched Sun with 11 kills on .250 hitting and eight digs. Nicklin Hames recorded a double-double with 35 assists, 10 digs and three blocks. Keonilei Akana led the Huskers with 15 digs while Lexi Rodriguez added 14.
“This is a really talented team and I think anyone can step up at any night,” Sun told Big Ten Network. “I think that just showed in everyone that played well and came in off the bench.”
Nebraska held a slight edge in hitting, .206 to .182 with three more kills, but the Huskers dominated with a 10-point advantage from the service line. The Huskers had six aces and just three errors while Illinois served just two aces and had nine errors.
“It really saved us because they were making some great shots tonight,” Cook said about his team’s serving. “Their outsides, [Megan] Cooney we had no answer for on the on the right side over there. But our serving, definitely picked up. I felt like every time we needed to get a run somebody went back there and got us three, four points. We were down last two games and it got us back in it with those runs. So that’s, again, trusting it, not missing.”
Hames went to Sun for a kill on the first rally, and in the process she moved into second place on Nebraska’s career assists list, surpassing volunteer assistant coach Kelly Hunter. Hames trails only Fiona Nepo, who played before the rally scoring era.
Nebraska jumped out to a 6-2 lead, then Akana served a 4-0 run to put the Huskers up 11-4. During that run, she served her first ace since Nebraska’s win against Rutgers on Oct. 10.
Nebraska took its biggest lead at 15-6. After a hot start to the set for Nebraska, however, Illinois stepped up its defensive effort and started to chip away at the lead, pulling within three at 22-19. Then the Huskers closed the set on a 3-1 run with kills from Kubik, Krause and Caffey to take a 1-0 lead.
Nebraska hit .278 while holding Illinois to .195. The Huskers earned a 5-1 advantage in service points thanks to a pair of aces and three errors from the Illini.
Terminating proved to be a challenge for Nebraska in the second set as the Huskers had two errors and no kills on their first eight swings, allowing the Illini to jump out to a 6-2 lead. Illinois pushed its lead to five five different times before Nebraska scored three in a row to pull within two at 16-14. After going back and forth a few times, Nebraska took a 19-18 lead with a 4-0 run that included three kills from Sun, the last of which was a left-handed tip that found the floor.
Illinois blocked Lindsay Krause to tie it up, but the Huskers responded with four straight kills including two by Kayla Caffey to take a 23-20 lead. Illinois got a kill but then misfired on the ensuing serve and Stivrins closed it out with a solo block.
“We got a lot of good practice last week,” Cook said about closing out sets. “We were in some really close games, and we challenged them, we’ve got to play better after 20 points. So we worked on it. We tried to create a mindset that we’ve got to turn it up at 20 points and they did it, I think, all three games tonight.”
Illinois held an edge in hitting, .167 to .133, thanks in part to five blocks, but the Illini had five service errors. Sun sparked the Huskers with five kills on 10 errorless swings while Kubik added five kills of her own.
“Just playing with some grit and some fire, I think that that’s really what I’ve been focusing on the last few weeks and I think that’s what our team has been focusing on and I think that really showed tonight,” Sun said.
Illinois opened the third set with a pair of kills sandwiching its first ace of the night to jump out to a 3-0 lead. The Illini pushed their lead to five at 9-4 before Kubik put down a kill then served three straight points, including an ace, to pull the Huskers within one.
Nebraska tied it up at 10-10 and 11-11 before the Illini regained the lead with three straight kills. Illinois pushed the advantage to four three times, the last at 19-15, before Nebraska took over.
A Kubik kill and a double-block from Stivrins and Hames cut the deficit in half. Terry Raine put down a kill for Illinois, but the Huskers responded with a 6-0 run featuring Stivrins at the service line. She recorded her first two aces of the season during that run. Stivrins missed on her sixth serve, but Nebraska closed it out with kills from Sun and Caffey to complete the sweep.
“I thought Lauren Stivrins did a great job at the end there,” Cook said. “She literally blew that third game open.”
Nebraska hit .222 while Illinois hit .186. Sun led the Huskers with four more kills. Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles each recorded an ace in the third to give Nebraska four in the set.
Nebraska will continue its road trip on Saturday when the Huskers head to Columbus to take on No. 7 Ohio State, who fell in four sets at No. 11 Minnesota on Thursday.
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.