No. 5 Nebraska had to dig deep on Saturday night after dropping the first set to Missouri, but the Huskers rallied to win in four and punch their ticket to the Madison regional in the final match of the year at the Devaney Center.
After three attack errors in the first set, junior opposite hitter Jazz Sweet played error-free the rest of the night to power the Huskers (27-4) to a 20-25, 25-20, 32-30, 25-18 victory over the Tigers (22-8) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Great match,” Coach John Cook said. “Our fans got their money’s worth. They were awesome tonight. Missouri is a great team, they played their hearts out. We had to go as deep as we had to go all year to win this match tonight. Great two teams that battled tonight. I thought our team winning that third game was huge. I think for either team, whoever won that, that was the key. A lot of great volleyball tonight, and again, Missouri is one heck of a team.”
Sweet finished with 17 kills, one shy of her season-high, on .438 hitting and six blocks. In the marathon third set alone, she had four kills and three blocks including a block assist on the final set point.
Jazz Sweet rarely shows emotion on the court. This is an exception. Set point to end the Set 3 marathon. #Huskers pic.twitter.com/b0JSggqOJC
— Kevin Sjuts (@kevinsjuts) December 8, 2019
Nebraska hit .267 for the match, though nine of their 19 errors came on their first 28 swings; they hit .364 over their last 107 attacks. Missouri hit .248 but Nebraska out-blocked the Tigers 13 to six. Both sides served seven aces but Missouri had 14 errors to just three for Nebraska.
“I think we found moments where we were probably trying to do a little bit too much,” Missouri coach Joshua Taylor said. “I kind of talked about this a little bit last night, I think our good is good enough. I think we were good in the first set—we were getting them out of system a pretty good amount of the team—and we did a really nice job of siding out after they go on a long run, and then we’d go back and miss our serve about eight feet long … Typically, we have aces and errors equal, kind of what we’ve been used to all season. I think when we were struggling with our serve a little bit, we started trying to do a little too much instead of just bringing things back and doing what we know.”
Junior Lexi Sun had 13 kills, eight digs and four blocks. Lauren Stivrins and Madi Kubik had 11 kills apiece and Kubik added 10 digs for the double-double.
Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames finished with 42 assists, 12 digs, three aces and a solo block. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles tied Hames for team-high honors in digs with 12 and added seven assists. Sophomore defensive specialist Megan Miller provided a spark off the bench with 11 digs and three aces. Sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach was one block shy of her season high with eight.
The first set was a tug of war early with seven ties and four lead changes in the first 22 rallies. After Nebraska pulled ahead 12-10, Missouri ripped off a 10-1 run to take a 20-13 lead as the Huskers were all out of sorts. At that point, the Huskers were hitting minus-.107 with nine attack errors, four of which were created by Missouri blocks.
Nebraska pulled it together enough to cut the deficit to two with a 7-2 run that included back-to-back aces from Miller. However, Missouri put an end to the comeback with a kill and back-to-back aces to end the set.
Nebraska terminated on three of its last four swings to get back to .000 hitting while Missouri hit .212. Both sides had four blocks, but Missouri only had one other attack error while Nebraska had five.
“I think we were taking good shots,” Sweet said. “We were just barely missing. We just had to find the hands on the block. We were either going just a bit too high or just a little bit out of the court trying to paint the lines. We definitely got in the groove after a couple swings out there because it was a big block out there.”
After trading points to open the second set, Nebraska ripped off a 4-0 run including another ace by Miller. The Huskers pushed their lead to five at 7-2 and 9-4 before Missouri battled back to within one with a 4-0 run aided by a successful challenge.
After trading points, Nebraska pushed its lead back to four with a 5-2 stretch including three kills by Sweet. Missouri cut it to two a couple of times and then to one after an ace serve during which Sun and Knuckles collided. Sun stayed down on the court for a few moments before being taken to the bench to get looked at.
Sun missed two points—a kill by each team—and after she checked back in the Huskers ripped off a 3-0 run to make it 22-18.
“She got hit by a libero; I don’t know why she took so long to get back in,” Cook quipped. “I think she jacked her neck up. They kind of hit awkwardly on that. It was a great serve by Tyanna [Omazic], that thing just dropped out and they both went for it. She just shook it off and ran back in there. She didn’t even ask, she just ran in. I talk to her all the time about getting tough, so she showed it tonight.”
The teams alternated sideouts from there until a ball-handling error by setter Andrea Fuentes on set point gave the Huskers the win.
Nebraska hit .400 in the second set led by six kills on seven swings from Sweet. Missouri hit .345 but had four fewer kills than the Huskers.
After six straight sideouts to open the third set, Missouri put together a 7-1 run to take a 10-4 lead, drawing a timeout from Cook. The Huskers looked like a different team when they returned to the court, scoring 10 of the next 11 points to turn a six-point deficit into a 14-11 lead. Missouri ended the run with a kill but the Huskers scored the next two points to make it 16-12 and the lead bounced between three and five until Nebraska earned set point at 24-20.
Things fell apart for Nebraska from there as Missouri scored five straight to turn the tables, but Sweet got another kill on Missouri’s first set point to tie it up again. Nebraska earned two more set points, but Missouri answered both times. Then the Tigers pulled ahead twice and Nebraska saved both points. After the sides traded kills, Missouri served into the net to give Nebraska the advantage and the Huskers finally finished it off with a double block from Sweet and Schwarzenbach.
“I think it definitely took all of us,” Sweet said. “I just happened to be the person who closed it out … It was definitely a huge team effort to push and keep the game close and tie it up all those times going all the way to 32.”
Missouri out-hit Nebraska .271 to .260 in the third set and had eight more kills, but the Huskers only committed three errors to Missouri’s eight (six of which came on Nebraska blocks) and the Tigers had six service errors to Nebraska’s one.
“That was a tough thing for us, giving up that five-point run,” Cook said. “We very easily could have lost that game. I think we made some big plays and continued to serve tough. I think they missed some serves which were huge turnarounds. We just found a way. We always talk about just trying to win three games by two points, and there was one example of winning by two points.”
Nebraska used a 6-1 run early in set four to take a 10-5 lead, but Missouri won seven of the next 10 rallies to pull back to within one. Three straight Husker kills—two by Sun and one by Sweet—made it 16-12 and Missouri got no closer than three points the rest of the way. The Huskers all but put the game away with a 5-0 run to make it 23-15. Stivrins closed it out with her 11th kill of the game.
Nebraska hit .478 in the fourth set and held Missouri to .167. Sweet and Kubik led the Huskers with four kills apiece.
“They competed great,” Cook said. “We talked about, in the tournament, you’re going to have to win some ugly games and matches. It’s not going to go perfect all the time. Tonight, was a slug fest for both teams. Both teams were making great plays and willing balls up and taking huge swings. There were some great rallies. I think we got in better shape tonight. Last three matches, I don’t think we’ve had many rallies. Again, Missouri is a great team and this was a great effort by our team to win this tonight.”
Wisconsin swept UCLA, making Saturday’s match the final one off the season at the Devaney Center as the Badgers will host the next two rounds in Madison. The crowd of 8,091 was rocking all night, especially during the marathon third set.
“I’m really grateful for our crowd,” Cook said. “If I was Bill Moos I would be putting season tickets on sale tomorrow for next year because if you were here tonight, how do you not fall in love with this competition and this event and this arena? I’m very grateful for that. I’m just really proud of my team. They’ve worked really hard and I think that our work that we do allows us to will those close games. I feel bad for Missouri because they played a heck of a match tonight. Whatever team had to lose tonight, it would be really tough. I’m excited to keep playing and coaching. I loving coming into the gym every day with these guys.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.