By Lincoln Arneal
On a night when she set the career record for assists, Nebraska needed Nicklin Hames’s defense just as much.
The senior setter finished with a match-high 13 digs to go with 20 assists as the third-ranked Huskers swept Illinois 25-14, 25-16, 25-22 Saturday evening at Huff Hall. NU (18-1) earned its sixth straight sweep and finished the first half of the Big Ten schedule with a perfect 10-0 record.
Hames upped her career total to 4,835 assists and passed Fiona Nepo (1995-98) in the second set with her 10th assist of the match on a roll-shot kill by Whitney Lauenstein.
“People say setters can’t play defense and I’m trying to change that. Setters can play defense,” Hames said during an interview on the Big Ten Network. “We just have a really great defensive mentality this year. Our blocking has been outstanding. We try to not let the ball hit the floor and I think we do a really great job. We’re relentless on defense.”
With Hames taking the first touch so often, libero Lexi Rodriguez finished second on the team with nine assists to go with nine digs. Junior setter Anni Evans finished with six assists and four digs.
The Illini (9-11, 4-6) used tough serving to try to make the Huskers play out-of-system. However, the aggressive serves also hurt Illinois as it finished with 10 errors to just three aces, which all came in the third set.
Nebraska handled the serving well for most of the match as it hit .320 on the night. Whitney Lauenstein led the Huskers with 13 kills, the first double-digit total in four matches, as she hit .346 and added five digs and three blocks. Madi Kubik added 10 kills at a .462 clip.
“Whitney was on fire,” NU coach John Cook said during his post-game radio interview. “I thought we could have set Madi more because Madi was on fire too.”
After not recording a kill in the first set, freshman middle blocker Bekka Allick finished with seven kills and a .462 hitting percentage. Sophomores Ally Batenhorst and Lindsay Krause each notched five kills.
The Huskers were at their best to end the first set as they closed it out with a 9-1 run, which included seven kills, as they hit .464 for the set.
“I have great passers and then I have great hitters who adjust to a lot of balls and they make my job really easy,” Hames said. “They want to be set in the big moments, making my job super easy being able to really spread the ball around and (I can) always trust them in big moments.”
Allick took over the second set with four kills early as NU grabbed a 9-4 advantage as it never let the Illini get closer than four points the rest of the way.
Defense continued to set up the offense. The Huskers finished the match with 44 digs, compared to just 29 for the Illini.
“For the first two games, I feel like we dug everything,” Cook said. “I think that really frustrated Illinois. Not only did we dig it, but we transitioned for kills. It’s hard enough to side out in this league. Then when you’re getting dug on great hits that you think are kills and you’re getting transitioned back and losing points, it is really demoralizing.”
Illinois battled back in the third set behind a 4-0 run that cut its deficit to 14-12. NU tried to pull away but couldn’t shake the Illini. However, Kubik ended the match with a kill late.
Riana Terry was the only Illinois player with much success as she tallied 13 kills. The rest of the team accounted for 17 kills and 8 errors. As a team, the Illini hit .161, their third-lowest total for the season.
The Huskers begin the second half of their league schedule on Wednesday at No. 5 Wisconsin, which has won the last eight matches.
“It’s just the next match in the Big Ten,” Cook said. “The Big Ten championship is going to go through Wisconsin and Ohio State. Those teams are up there right now with Minnesota. We have to find a way to get over the hump.”