By Lincoln Arneal
LINCOLN – The cheers started in the student section of the Devaney Center.
The first reaction was confusion. Why were they cheering several moments after a random point in the second set? It was several moments after the last rally had ended.
The noise spread as people checked their phones and talked to their neighbors. The students told the players the news on the bench. No. 16 Purdue had knocked off No. 3 Wisconsin 16-14 in the fifth set.
With the Boilermakers’ victory, the stakes for Nebraska’s match against Michigan had changed. The top-ranked Huskers had a chance to clinch a share of the Big Ten championship with a win. NU easily took care of business with a 25-15, 25-12, 25-20 sweep over the Wolverines in front of a crowd of 8,815 for its last home match of the regular season.
The Huskers (26-0, 17-0) will get to hang their first conference title banner since 2017. They can win it outright by winning one of their three remaining matches against Iowa, Wisconsin or Minnesota.
NU coach John Cook said he was confused when he heard the cheers until assistant coach Kelly Hunter explained what was happening.
“Everybody started screaming, and I’m like, ‘What the heck’s going on?’” he said. “They all started screaming, and Bekka (Allick) made a play, and then she came out. I’m thinking, ‘Did she break a record or something I don’t know about?’ Then, later, Kelly told me that Purdue had won.”
Junior Merritt Beason said they are celebrating the moment, but their job isn’t over.
“We’re focused on Iowa on Sunday. We want to win the Big Ten outright, and we’re not done with our season yet,” she said. “We’re just staying locked in on what’s ahead and we haven’t accomplished our goals yet.”
Freshman Harper Murray leaned over and whispered, “Great answer,” to the co-captain.
When asked about her by-the-book response, Beason admitted that she had received guidance from Cook a few minutes before the postmatch press conference.
Despite the coach-speak, she said they still have to take everything point by point. Even though it’s exciting to have the Big Ten title in their grasp, they still have plenty of work to do, including finishing the regular season undefeated and winning the national title.
“I don’t think it’ll necessarily be too hard for us (to focus) just because we all agree that we’re not done yet,” said Beason, who finished with seven kills and nine digs. “There’s bigger goals that we want to achieve.”
The match got off to an unusual start as the sound system was malfunctioning. The crowd sang the national anthem and starting lineups were skipped.
Even though it threw off their routine, Cook said he reminded the team of its experiences in Brazil, where it played in front of large crowds but didn’t have an announcer.
“It was really awkward. No introductions. We had stuff planned. All the stuff we’re used to,” Cook said. “I’m just thinking, ‘Oh, great. Here we go. This is going to throw a monkey wrench into our routine and focus.’ But they did an awesome job.”
The night was a special occasion for Murray as she squared off against her older sister, Kendall, on her home court. She said she had a lot of family and friends in Devaney for the first time who were watching her play.
The freshman outside hitter put together an impressive match, tying a match-high nine kills to go with five digs and an ace serve. She was also perfect on her 19 serve receptions.
Murray said playing in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was more emotional, but she was glad she got to share the moment with her sister while her mother was in the stands.
After the match, the Murray sisters took a picture together wearing matching No. 27 jerseys in honor of their late father, who wore the number when he played football for the Wolverines.
“It’s cool for my mom to see that. It was special that (Kendall) was able to play here and we got that picture,” Murray said. “I’m proud of her and her team. I know a lot of the other girls on that team and playing them means a lot to me just because I played with a lot of them growing up.”
Michigan (7-19, 5-12) didn’t threaten Nebraska for most of the match. The Huskers hit .368 and sided out 85 percent of the time when the Wolverines served.
The NU middle blockers played another great match as Andi Jackson recorded nine kills at a .727 clip and Allick terminated seven times on 10 swings. They also finished with four and five blocks, respectively.
Freshman setter Bergen Reilly tallied 28 assists, six digs and four kills. Libero Lexi Rodriguez led the defense with 15 digs.
Valentina Vaulet led Michigan with nine kills as the Wolverines hit .047 for the match. Omaha Skutt graduate Morgan Burke recorded 24 assists, six digs and a kill, ace and block.
The Huskers will have their first chance to win the Big Ten outright on Sunday at Iowa. Nebraska owns a 37-0 all-time record against the Hawkeyes, who are winless in the Big Ten this year.
“We’ll just take it as whoever’s in front of us that day and we’ll do whatever we have to do to win that match,” Beason said. “For us, we’re not really looking too far ahead. We have Iowa on Sunday and we’ll figure out how to beat Iowa, and then we’ll move on from there.”