“It wasn’t pretty.”
The was Coach John Cook’s initial assessment on the postgame radio show of Nebraska’s sweep at Rutgers on Friday afternoon. The Huskers (5-0) took down the Scarlet Knights (1-6) 25-18, 25-21, 25-19, despite falling behind in all three sets including a sizable deficit in the second set.
“We’re going to have to get a lot better,” Cook said. “We had some great individual performances, but I don’t think we played great as a team today and we didn’t serve and pass very well.”
Senior outside hitter Lexi Sun was one of the Huskers who had a great individual performance with 17 kills on .484 hitting. Lauren Stivrins added 11 kills on .556 hitting while Kayla Caffey chipped in seven kills on .545 hitting and three blocks.
Nicklin Hames recorded her third straight double-double with 37 assists and 10 digs, though Cook said he “felt sorry for her” because of how much she had to run around as a result of Nebraska’s poor passing. Madi Kubik had seven kills but also had four errors and although she led the team with 11 digs, Cook wasn’t satisfied with her passing.
“I thought Madi served really well, but attacking she made some poor judgment on some swings and then passing-wise, we need her to be our best passer and then everyone to feed off her and I thought she struggled a little bit tonight passing,” Cook said. “She’s got to go into every match knowing she’s our best passer and sets the tone for everybody else. But she served really well tonight and defensively she was good.”
Nebraska hit .320 overall thanks to the strong showings by Sun and the middles while the Scarlet Knights hit .189.
Rutgers went at Nebraska early on, pulling ahead 5-3 with a 3-0 run. The Huskers settled in and started passing a bit better from there, using a 6-1 run capped by an Akana ace to take a 9-6 lead and force a Rutgers timeout.
Soon after, Nebraska blew the game open with a 10-3 run to pull ahead 22-13. Rutgers didn’t go down easy, rallying to cut the deficit down to six, but Sun closed it out with a free ball kill, her sixth of the set on 10 attempts. Nebraska hit .256 and held Rutgers to .171 hitting.
The end of the first set carried over into the second as Nebraska struggled mightily to pass the ball, leading to four attack errors and a service error early as Rutgers used a 6-0 run to take an 11-4 lead.
The Scarlet Knights capped that run off with an ace and Cook had seen enough, sending in redshirt freshman Emma Gabel to make her Husker debut in the back row. The walk-on defensive specialist missed her first year while recovering from a torn ACL suffered during the spring of 2019.
Nebraska managed to cut the deficit down to two at 12-10, but Rutgers responded with three straight to draw a Nebraska timeout at 15-10. Whatever Cook said during the break seemed to work as Nebraska put together a 7-1 run featuring some tough serving by Sun to pull ahead 17-16.
“Emma does a great job in practice,” Cook said. “I hadn’t played her in a match yet, but we were struggling passing so I had to do something. So she came in and kind of stabilized us there and made a couple nice plays and helped us kind of get some momentum going back.”
Rutgers tied the set at 17-17, 18-18,19-19 and 20-20, but Nebraska won five of the final six rallies to take the set 25-21. After the sloppy start, Nebraska committed just one attack error the rest of the way and hit .367 in the set. Rutgers hit .200. Sun added six more kills to her total.
Sun recorded Nebraska’s first three kills of the third set as a 4-0 run served by Hames gave the Huskers a 6-3 lead and drew an early timeout from the Scarlet Knights. Nebraska pushed its lead as high as six midway through the set before Rutgers cut it down to one a few times.
Cook turned to Gabel again for some back-row play and Jazz Sweet got some playing time later in the set as well.
Rutgers closed the gap to one at 18-17, but a couple of Scarlet Knight miscues allowed the Huskers to take control and finish the match on a 7-2 run to complete the sweep. Nebraska hit .355 to Rutgers’ .200 in the final frame.
“Round two tomorrow,” Cook said. “We’ll see if we can get better. Rutgers is much improved. They served really well tonight. They’re doing a nice job, but we’ve got to be better than we played tonight. Too many lapses in focus and communication and giving up run-off points.”
Saturday’s match against the Scarlet Knights will begin at 3 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network Plus.
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.