By Lincoln Arneal
After Nebraska scored the first five points of the match against Pepperdine Saturday night, it appeared like the top-ranked Huskers were going to have another easy early-season match.
Even though Nebraska swept the Waves, the Huskers (3-0) looked disconnected on offense and sometimes struggled to terminate. NU hit .120 against Pepperdine but relied on a stingy defense and timely kills to remain perfect on the season with a 26-24, 25-19, 25-22 victory in front of 8,066 fans at the Devaney Center.
Coach John Cook said he tried to prepare his team for a more physical Pepperdine lineup that would force close games.
“We’re trying to win two-point games. There was our first shot, and we found a way to do it,” Cook said. “There’s a lot of new players out there that haven’t been in that situation and they made plays. That’s what we got to get better at.”
After posting hitting percentages of .388 and .318 during the first two matches, the Huskers never found a rhythm against Pepperdine. The Waves recorded 12 blocks, including six in the first set, and also served tough, which caused issues with NU’s attack.
Senior outside hitter Madi Kubik led the way with 11 kills but committed seven errors. Sophomore Lindsay Krause added nine kills and four errors. Sophomore Whitney Launestein posted the top attack percentage at .238 with eight kills.
“They have some good servers. I think our passers had to settle in a little bit,” Kubik said. “We had to get in a groove and get (setter Kennedi Orr) in a groove. They had more physical blockers than we had seen this weekend. We just had a little bit of an adjustment period to that.”
Meanwhile, NU’s defense did its job. The Huskers recorded 10 blocks, including six by Ameritas Players Challenge MVP Kaitlyn Hord. Orr added five and Bekka Allick tallied four.
The Huskers faced their first big deficit of the season in the first set with Pepperdine leading 22-20 after scoring five straight points. Kills by Krause and Kubik tied the match up. The Waves had a chance to claim the set before Lauenstein delivered a big kill. Two Pepperdine hitting errors closed out the set.
The Waves (2-1) led 12-8 in the third set, but the Huskers cranked up the pressure and forced miscues. During an 11-4 run, the Waves were blocked twice, had five hitting errors and missed two serves. Kubik and Hord had the only kills during the streak.
“This match was a little bit tougher and matches like these help us to grow our resilience muscle,” Kubik said. “We played in some tight sets and being able to find a way in big points is what we need to get good going into the Big Ten. This match was really good for us and our young team..”
After not playing the first set, Rachel Ahrens paced the Pepperdine offense with nine kills on 25 swings, but she also had nine errors. For the match, the Waves had 28 kills and 27 errors.
Super senior Nicklin Hames led the defense with 12 digs, while libero Lexi Rodriguez added 11.
Cook credited Kenzie Knuckles with setting the tone for the match. The senior defensive specialist recorded five digs and served 14 points, including the final two of the first set.
“Kenzie Knuckles would have been our MVP tonight,” Cook said. “Just her energy, her mindset, her passing, digging and serving, really, I think was the difference tonight.”
The match was an emotional night for Hames as she shared the court with her sister, Pepperdine defensive specialist Kayleigh Hames, for the first time since the Tennessee state championship match five years ago. They hugged before the match and talked a little bit before warmups.
Nicklin said she had eight or nine family members in the crowd, many of whom wore navy blue for the Waves.
The public address announcer put a little extra energy into Kayleigh’s introduction before the match, which also drew a loud response from the crowd.
Nicklin said she got a little emotional in what she called a “surreal moment.” She appreciated the opportunity to play against her sister in their last seasons of college volleyball.
“It makes me tear up a little bit now,” Hames said after the match. “This place is just so special to me and for them to cheer for her like that, it was really cool. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment and I think it’ll probably still bring tears to my eyes every time I think about it.”
All-Tournament Team: MVP: MB Kaitlyn Hord, NU. OH Whitney Lauenstein, NU. OH Madi Kubik, NU. L Lexi Rodriguez, NU. S Isabel Zelaya, Pepperdine. OH Kayley Cassaday, Tulsa. L Carissa Barnes, TAMU-CC.