COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sometimes, it just isn’t your night. That reality is a tough pill to swallow when the night happens to come during the Final Four, however.
After sweeping Texas during the first weekend of the season, Nebraska saw the tables turned in Columbus, Ohio, as the Longhorns swept the Huskers to earn a ticket to the NCAA Championship.
Nebraska’s season has come to an end after a Big Ten title, a Final Four run and a 31-3 overall record. The Huskers spent most of the season at the top of the AVCA coaches poll and earned the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA Tournament, but come Saturday there will be a new No. 1 and a new champion.
Texas will face off against Stanford for the ultimate prize after the Cardinal took down Minnesota on four sets in Thursday’s first semifinal.
“Texas deserves a lot of credit,” Nebraska Coach John Cook said. “They played really well. We just couldn’t get in a rhythm and put enough pressure on them. So they certainly deserved to win. When you make eight hitting errors in a three-game winning match that’s a great night. So they played really well and deserved a 3-0 victory.”
While Texas committed just eight attack errors all night, the Huskers had eight errors in the first set alone and finished with 21. It seemed like those errors came at the worst times as well, derailing multiple attempts by the Huskers to pull ahead.
“I think they just took control of the match from the start,” junior setter Kelly Hunter said. “And it was pretty hard for us to get it back. So I think every time we did make a run for it, they answered right back. And they were very low error, which is hard to play against. And we were kind of the opposite. So just their mentality, they were fired up. They took it from us right from the start.”
In retrospect, the first point of the game – a service error by Hunter — set the tone for the whole match. The errant serve – one of eight in the match for Nebraska — spotted the Longhorns a 1-0 lead and ensured the Huskers would be playing catch-up right from the start.
Neither team led by more than three points for much of the set as they went back and forth, but Texas’ power proved to be too much as the Longhorns closed the match on a 15-8 run after a 10-all tie.
Sophomore outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player, picked up where she left off in 2015 with four kills on four swings in the first set. However, the rest of the team combined for eight kills and eight errors.
Nebraska led for much of the second set, but each time they threatened to pull away the Longhorns answered with a run of their own to tie the game. Nebraska started off 3-0 and held a handful of two-point leads throughout the set, but after pulling ahead 12-10, Texas reeled off a 3-0 run and Nebraska never led again. Texas never led by more than two, but a two point margin is all that’s necessary to win a set.
For the second time in three matches, the Huskers faced a 2-0 deficit at the intermission. Having come back from down 0-2 and facing match point against Penn State in the Sweet 16, the Huskers were still thinking “comeback.”
“Obviously we knew we could do it but we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Hunter said. “And we would have to go and take it from them. But we just knew if he were going to win the match we had to make a huge change … I think their play was just awesome tonight. So it was pretty hard for us to do that.”
The Huskers fell behind by four seven different times early in the third set against Texas, but a 4-1 run cut the deficit to one at 16-15 and forced a timeout by Texas coach Jerritt Elliott. Texas responded with a 3-0 run, but following a Nebraska timeout the Huskers answered with their own 3-0 run to cut it to one again at 19-18 thanks to a successful challenge by Cook. With momentum in their favor and needing to make a push to stave off elimination, Annika Albrecht stepped up to the service line and put her serve long.
Texas closed the match on a 6-3 run. o miracle comeback this time.
“Very uncharacteristic,” Cook said. “And I think we were just really pressing tonight. And then once we sensed that Texas was playing really well, and we were having a hard time stopping them, I mean, I think, we’re the best defensive team in the country. And we let them hit .321 tonight. So just when we couldn’t stop them, it just forced — we started pressing a little bit trying harder and that’s why you saw those types of plays. I saw stuff I haven’t seen all year tonight. But that’s what happens in a match like this sometimes. And, of course, we’ve seen it happen to other teams. But again Texas deserves a lot of credit.”
Foecke led the Huskers with 13 kills and .333 hitting. Senior outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen finished with six kills and a match-high 14 digs, but she also committed four attack errors. Junior middle blocker Briana Holman added nine kills but also committed four attack errors. The Longhorns out-blocked the Huskers 10 to four.
Texas outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu finished with a match-high 15 kills for Texas and committed just one attack error all night. Paulina Preto Cerame added 12 kills.
“Their whole team is very physical,” Hunter said. “The thing with Ebony is you can have a perfect block set up and she can still go over you. And a lot of their hitters are like that, too. She just mixed up her shots. She didn’t have a specific tendency where we could really just shut her down there. But she didn’t make very many errors. She just moves the ball around. And I think that was tough for us.
Cook was caught off-guard by how poorly his team played.
“We’ve had a great week of practice,” Cook said. “They’ve been — this team has done an unbelievable job the whole season of being consistent with everything they do and I felt really good going in tonight. I felt we were going to play a great match.”
It didn’t play out the way Cook anticipated, and thus the Huskers run has come to an end in 2016. They did not reach their ultimate goal of winning a second-straight national championship, but they weren’t too far off.
Cook will lose four seniors including three All-Americans, but he does return a core that includes All-America second-teamer Hunter as well as honorable mentions Foecke and Holman. Next season’s team will look very different without the familiar faces of Kadie and Amber Rolfzen and Justine Wong-Orantes, but the outgoing class has set a high standard for the program moving forward.
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.