Photo by Pat Radigan
25-18, 23-25, 24-26, 28-26, 15-11
Foecke – 19
Stivrins – 5.0
Hunter – 23
Story by Pat Radigan
Huskers mount epic rally to punch ticket to national championship match on Saturday
Kelly Hunter came into Thursday’s match 6-0 against Penn State in her career.
And while Penn State’s senior All-Americans came up clutch to put the top-seeded Nittany Lions on the verge of a trip to the title game, it was Nebraska’s All-American and the Big Ten Setter of the Year who guided an “in the moment” Husker squad to a five-set win and a trip to the national title match.
Hunter showed why she was named the AVCA Regional Player of the Year, and combined nicely with an inspired performance from the Husker hitters to survive and advance in the national semifinals. Nebraska faced a match-point in the fourth, and made sure it was the only look at a win that Penn State would have.
The Huskers held on to win the fourth, and rode the momentum of 18,374 fans at the Sprint Center to take control of the fifth and slam the door on the win with a 15-11 victory in the set.
“I told you guys all week, Penn State-Nebraska brings out the best in each other,” said NU coach John Cook. “I said it was going to be an epic match, it was.
“It’s a great win… They just showed what they’re all about. That’s why they’re Big Ten champs.”
Penn State had a look at a match point when Annika Albrecht was stuffed at the left pin, putting PSU up 26-25 in the fourth set. The Huskers had issues with ball handling on the next point, and sent a free ball back across the net. Nebraska survived when a pair of Penn State players collided, and allowed the ball to fall in for the point.
With the new life, Hunter set up fellow senior Briana Holman for a kill, then watched as freshmen Lauren Stivrins and Jazz Sweet came up with kills on the next two points to extend the match to five thanks to a 3-0 spurt and a 28-26 win in the set.
The Nittany Lions survived the blow, and answered with a 6-4 lead in the fifth set. But again, there was Holman to hammer a kill through the Penn State block and inject life into the Sprint Center crowd. That swing keyed a 5-0 run, and flipped the two-point hole into a 9-6 Nebraska lead to force a timeout from PSU.
Even with the timeout, there was little Penn State could do to stop the Husker’s momentum.
Albrecht added a pair of kills, Mikaela Foecke found the floor for her match-high 19th kill and Hunter put the final touches on match point when she won a joust at the net and got the decisive kill.
Hunter finished with 47 assists, a match-high 23 digs and was second on the team with six block assists. Nebraska hit .249 for the match, but stepped it up in crunch time to post 6 kills on 11 swings without an error in the fifth set.
Foecke added 19 digs to her 19 kills for an emphatic double-double, her first career double-double in the NCAA tournament, and was joined by 13 kills/13 digs for Albrecht. Albrecht added a pair of aces and a block assists, and Foecke had an ace of her own and three block assists as Nebraska scrambled to keep Penn State’s offense in check.
The Huskers also got four aces and 21 digs from libero Kenzie Maloney and another 13 digs from defensive specialist Sydney Townsend. Nebraska finished with 90 digs as a team.
“No matter what, there is going to be the next point,” Hunter said. “It gives you a chance every single point to feel like you’re fighting for something. And that’s what we set our mentality to in the last set.”
Nebraska rode the energy of the crowd and the serving of Maloney to the early edge.
Maloney put away three aces in the opening set, and keyed a 5-0 run to help NU take control, then served out the final two sets of the point to close out a 25-18 win in the opening frame. The Huskers blasted 14 kills with just three errors, and hit .407 to take advantage of Penn State’s inability to put points together.
With Maloney and others applying pressure from the service line, Nebraska also posted three blocks in the opening set to make relatively easy work of the nation’s top team.
And while Nebraska “could have won it in three,” according to Cook, the Nittany Lions used a couple of late runs to claim the next two sets.
With NU up by a point in the second set, a swing by Penn State’s Nia Reed went wide and was called a point for Nebraska initially. Upon further review, however, it was ruled that Hunter got a touch on the swing, and the overturned point tied the set at 20. Penn State took the lead on the next point, and took the last two points of the set to sneak out a 25-23 win to get on the board.
In the third, Nebraska worked its way to a 21-17 lead, but again the Nittany Lions would answer.
After the teams traded points, Simone Lee stepped back to the service line and dropped an ace in between two Tori Gorrell kills to cut Nebraska’s lead to just one. Cook challenged the ace, which was ruled to have clipped the line on video review. A service error two points later put NU up 23-21, before another 3-0 spurt gave the Nittany Lions the lead.
Nebraska fought off the first set point. Penn State answered, though, and an errant swing by the Huskers gave PSU a 26-24 win in the set and a 2-1 lead after three games.
Lee finished with 18 kills and 15 digs, while fellow first-team All-American Haleigh Washington chipped in 13 kills and 6 block assists.
Now, Nebraska will wait to see if it faces defending-champion Stanford, the No. 3 seed, or if it will be a rematch with No. 2 Florida. Without Hunter, Nebraska fell in five sets to Florida on the opening weekend of the season as part of the VERT Challenge in Gainesville. Saturday’s national championship is set to start at 8 p.m. and will be aired live on ESPN.