By Lincoln Arneal
LINCOLN – The final stats in Nebraska’s victory over Michigan State were slightly misleading.
The second-ranked Huskers hit .302, won the blocking battle 11-6 and recorded 10 more digs. So how did NU drop a set to the Spartans, who fell to 11-7 and 3-4 on the year?
The troubles started in the second set when NU missed six serves. The lack of aggression carried over to the third set, where the Huskers equaled the number of hitting errors in the first two sets during the first seven rallies and fell behind 6-1 and never recovered.
Nebraska did recover in the fourth set to earn a 25-12, 25-19, 22-25, 25-15 win against the Spartans Friday evening at the Devaney Center.
NU coach John Cook said he knew the Huskers would start well after a solid week of practice and with energy provided by the crowd of 8,539, but that energy didn’t sustain through the match.
“We just kind of lost our focus there and it started with service errors,” he said. “We just lost all of our rhythm and momentum and the game became hard for us. We got tentative. It affected our hitting, it affected our setting, but we finished really strong in Game 4.”
After service errors plagued NU (16-0, 7-0 Big Ten) during a four-match road trip, the Huskers served tough to start the match with an ace, one error and forcing tough passes that led to multiple kills on overpass.
However, four missed serves early allowed the Spartans to hang around and trail 8-7 in the second set. Cook said NU hopes to get its serves in instead of serving to win. While there is progress in practice, the results aren’t showing up in matches.
Junior opposite Merritt Beason said they are dealing with nerves while trying to work through adjustments on their serves.
“You’re gonna have to go through the rough parts,” she said. “I think that’s what we’re seeing right now. Everyone, individually, is really focused on finding what that looks like for them where they’re still being really aggressive and can score points but also minimizing errors clearly, which we need.”
Harper Murray also struggled with serve receive in the second set, and Cook inserted sophomore Hayden Kubik into the match when MSU took a brief lead at 12-11. Kubik recorded her first kill of the season as the Huskers’ offense took over, allowing it to pull away. However, the lack of aggression carried over to other parts of NU’s game in the third set, which saw multiple lineup changes as well.
In a planned move, Bekka Allick started the set with a lift call on a low set on the first rally. After Beason recorded the kill and MSU’s Amani McArthur added a kill of her own, the errors piled up.
Allick was called in the net trying to slam home an overpass. Beason hit the ball wide. Lindsay Krause went long and then was stuffed by the Spartan block.
Beason, who finished with 13 kills and a .423 hitting percentage, said NU didn’t respond well to Michigan State upping its intensity on defense and taking away the shots that were working in the first two sets.
“They knew what we wanted to hit,” she said. “For us right now, it’s just figuring out our groove and how we’re going to better adapt to those changes.”
The Huskers eventually regrouped but never took a lead in the set. Eventually, Batenhorst replaced Krause after her fourth hitting error of the set. Kubik also re-entered the match after Murray missed on back-to-back swings that gave MSU a 21-16 advantage.
NU tried to mount a comeback late, trimmed its deficit to 24-22, and looked to have won the ensuing point, but a challenge replay gave the Spartans a touch call and the set.
“We tried to make a nice comeback in Game 3, but you can’t rely on trying to make comebacks against Big Ten teams,” Cook said.
The Huskers went back to Murray to start the fourth. Cook said assistant coach Jaylen Reyes advocated sticking with the freshman to fight adversity. The move paid off as Murray recorded four kills on six swings to finish the night with seven kills and a .080 hitting percentage.
All the Huskers were on fire in the fourth set. NU’s only hitting error came on an attempted setter dump by Bergen Reilly. The attackers combined to terminate 17 of their 25 swings without any errors.
“We just went back and focused on us and being who we are,” Beason said. “At the end of the day, if we play our game and we play Nebraska volleyball, no one’s gonna stop us and we’re gonna plow through whoever is put in front of us.”
Krause finished with eight kills, while Batenhorst tallied five kills on 11 swings. Reilly recorded a double-double with 38 assists and tied Lexi Rodriguez for the team lead with 16 digs.
Freshman Andi Jackson played one of her best matches of the season with a career-best 13 kills on a .524 hitting percentage to go with a match-high six blocks.
After struggling the last few weeks, Jackson said she worked with Reilly to mix up her shots and not be as predictable.
“Our connection hasn’t been the best lately, and we knew it wasn’t the end of the world. It’s going to happen. It’s mid-season, people are getting tired, like we’re playing back-to-back games on the road,” she said. “(Reilly) worked with me a lot and she kept feeding me the ball tonight and I think we really saw that connection come back.”
Aliyah Moore led MSU with 10 kills, while Nil Okur added seven. A week after Taylah Holdem scored 16 kills against Nebraska, she finished with just six kills and nine hitting errors.
“She’s a pretty crafty hitter and we just did a really nice job preparing because now that we’ve seen her, we could work on that. She was something we knew we had to stop,” Cook said.
Despite the lull, NU still took care of business against the Spartans. The Husker will face a much stiffer test Saturday night when Penn State comes to the Devaney Center.
The Nittany Lions are also undefeated in league play and feature Jess Mruzik, one of the top outside hitters in the country.
While Nebraska has dominated the series recently, Cook said they must maintain their aggressive style for the match.
“I know what we can do. You got to go out and perform now,” he said. “I think they’ll be fired up to play Penn State. It’s always a great match. They’re very talented, a great team, but we’ve got to come out and attack tomorrow night.”