By Lincoln Arneal
In Nebraska’s locker room hangs a poster with the motto “Two points better.” It’s there to remind the Huskers to rise to the occasion in close matches after they lost 15 sets by two points last season.
However, in the first test of their mantra this year, the second-ranked Huskers couldn’t deliver in the clutch moments as No. 9 Stanford handed the Huskers a 27-25, 25-22, 19-25, 27-25 loss Tuesday night at the Devaney Center.
NU coach John Cook said they didn’t put enough pressure on Stanford and got tentative in the match’s biggest moments.
“We just didn’t execute at end game and play our best when it mattered most,” Cook said. “That’s something we’ve been working on. We got a lot of young players out there and this was the first time in that big-time environment. We had our chances and just couldn’t capitalize.”
As a result, the Huskers lost their first match of the year. Stanford picked up its second road win over a top-five Big Ten team after it took out then-No. 3 Minnesota on Saturday.
The Huskers (7-1) took control early in the first set and jumped out to an 18-12 lead. However, the Cardinal stormed back with a 6-1 run that included three NU hitting errors and a service error.
NU hung tough and still led 23-21, but Stanford ran off three points to go in front. After fighting off two set points, Stanford scored the final two points of the set on another NU service error and a hitting error.
“I think we just got a little too comfortable and weren’t really bringing the same intensity which allowed them to close that lead that we had,” sophomore Lexi Rodriguez said. “We got to learn from that and learn how to close matches.”
After trailing almost all of the second set, Nebraska rallied to tie it at 20-all. However, the Huskers couldn’t slow down Stanford’s offense late, and the set ended on another hitting error. NU hit negative for the set, recording 11 errors to just 10 kills.
The Huskers finally found the right combination in the third set. It used a 5-0 run to take a 15-13 lead to re-energize the crowd of 8,385, the largest since the 2019 season. After Stanford tied the set at 18-all, NU took over. The Huskers won seven of the next eight rallies, including the final two on ace serves by Whitney Lauenstein.
Senior setter Nicklin Hames didn’t finish the third set as she remained on the bench following a timeout at 20-18. Cook said he didn’t know the issue with Hames, but he was told she couldn’t play anymore. He did not have an update on her status following the match.
Sophomore Kennedi Orr finished the third set and played the entire fourth set. Hames finished with 19 assists, while junior Anni Evans added 12 assists and 12 digs. Orr recorded eight assists.
In the fourth set, Nebraska rallied to grab a 21-20 lead after two blocks by freshman Bekka Allick. However, the Cardinal took the upper hand after a kill and an NU hitting error. After trading four side outs, Lindsay Krause fended off the first match point and gave NU a set point at 25-24, but Stanford delivered kills on the final three rallies to emerge with its fifth straight victory over the Huskers.
Rodriguez, who had 13 digs, said the team needs players to rise to the occasion in those close moments.
“When we’re in a rut or in a rotation where we can’t really side out, someone has to step up,” Rodriguez said.
Kubik led NU with 13 kills and 15 digs, while Lauenstein added 11 kills. Krause came on late with nine kills, and Maggie Mendelson had six kills and four blocks.
Nebraska’s middles were largely absent from the offense. Kaitlyn Hord and Allick both finished with five kills and five blocks. Hord tallied just 11 swings, while Allick had 17.
“We wanted to set more middle tonight and we didn’t set it enough. (The setters) went away from it,” Cook said. “We kept telling them to run middle, run middle, and Kaitlyn’s got 11 sets. That’s not a great night by our setters and we passed pretty well tonight – good enough to run more middle.”
Senior opposite Kendall Kipp paced the Cardinal with 15 kills as outside hitters Elia Rubin and Catie Baird also reached double figures with 13 and 10 kills, respectively.
Stanford wasn’t sharp from the service line with 23 service errors. Combined with 21 hitting errors, it gave Nebraska plenty of free points during the match.
“It should haunt us,” Cook said about the Cardinal’s almost-set worth of service errors. “We should win that match. But, we made errors at critical times.”