By Lincoln Arneal
After failing to rise to the occasion against No. 9 Stanford earlier in the week, Nebraska heard about it every day in practice.
So when the Huskers had another opportunity against a tough opponent, second-ranked NU seized the moment and delivered a 27-25, 25-20, 25-15 sweep over No. 13 Kentucky Sunday afternoon in front of 3,933 fans at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky.
“Winning that close (first) game just gave them this major shot of confidence,” NU coach John Cook said during a post-match TV interview. “I think we just rolled from there and wore Kentucky down.”
Nebraska (8-1) trailed 23-20 in the first set before stringing together its first scoring run of more than two points to earn a set point. The Wildcats rallied for a set point of their own, but the Huskers scored the final three points on two kills and a Kentucky service error.
Cook said NU was making “boneheaded” plays early on, such as having the setter take the first touch on a free ball.
The key change came during a late timeout in the first set when Cook got after his team for the number of tips and roll shots they attempted. The Huskers had just eight kills on their first 29 attacks, but NU recorded six kills on the last nine rallies of the first set.
“I called a timeout and said, ‘You guys, you’re gonna have to attack and win this. They’re not going to give it to you,’” Cook said. “It was just more of a mindset. We gotta go take it. We’re tired of losing deuce games … You have to be able to play your best when it matters most.”
With the Wildcats leading 17-16 in the second set, Nebraska went on a 6-0 run to take control. However, this run was more about Kentucky errors. The Wildcats missed on four attacks, including one block.
Sophomore outside hitter Whitney Lauenstein finished the set with one of her match-high 11 kills. She also finished with a .370 hitting percentage with two aces and three blocks.
“I think this match was like, ‘Let’s play together and just play fearless,’” Lauenstein said. “Just go for everything. We’re on the road – like, ‘You can’t lose a road game. Come on. You gotta beat them.’ So we got to play fearless and go for everything.”
The Huskers dominated the third set as they jumped out to leads of 5-1 and 8-3.
Even without senior setter Nicklin Hames, NU’s offense hit for .302, including .361 in the third set. Sophomore Kennedi Orr tallied 20 assists while junior Anni Evans added 16.
Senior Madi Kubik and sophomore Lindsay Krause each totaled nine kills. Kubik added nine digs, while Krause terminated at a .304 clip.
NU got the middles more involved as freshman Bekka Allicked recorded five kills on eight swings and Kaitlyn Hord had five kills, including the match clincher in her hometown. Allick also added six blocks, while Hord had four. NU won the battle at the net, out blocking UK 10-3.
Sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez anchored the defense with 15 digs to go with seven assists.
The Wildcats finished with a season-low .141 hitting percentage with 20 hitting errors. Reagan Rutherford paced UK with nine kills. Kentucky entered the match second in the nation with a .326 percentage. Cook credited assistant coach Jaylen Reyes for designing the defensive game plan and the players for executing it.
“(Defense is) the way you get to those teams that are used to killing a lot of balls. If they can’t kill balls, they start pressing,” Cook said. “They did it for however long this match lasted, the whole match, they were on it.”