By Lincoln Arneal
Playing in her second Big Ten match, Harper Murray showed no signs of wilting on the big stage.
Late in each set against No. 12 Minnesota, the freshman outside hitter stepped to the end line and delivered tough serves that lead to critical points.
Behind Murray’s serving and several other clutch plays, the No. 2 Huskers (11-0, 2-0 Big Ten) earned their fourth-straight win over a ranked opponent this season with a 25-23, 25-20, 25-22 sweep Sunday evening in front of 8,591 fans at the Devaney Center.
NU coach John Cook said several systems were built to help make Nebraska a strong mental team in order to deal with the anxiety-inducing moments. Cook said he’s impressed with the Huskers’ mental toughness, especially with most of the team navigating their first trip through the Big Ten.
“A lot of people, when things get tough, they’ll go internal. They’ll start having negative self-talk,” Cook said. “We have some things we’ve been working on since the beginning of the season and in the summer. How do we not go there? It’s really easy to go there, especially when teams are stressing you and things aren’t going your way.”
In the first set, Murray toed the line with the score tied at 22-all and delivered two tough serves with each resulting in a point. She added a back-row kill on the second one for good measure.
She served during a 5-0 run in the second set, which turned a 16-14 lead into a comfortable advantage. Murray later added two kills down the stretch. Then she added an ace to cap off a 3-0 burst late in the third set that gave NU the lead for good at 21-20.
Murray finished with a match-high 13 kills to go with eight digs.
Cook said while she might worry about her hitting and passing numbers, he is trying to get Murray to embrace her role as an essential server for the Huskers. She’s usually the second NU player to serve each match after setter Bergen Reilly, increasing her opportunities to impact the match.
“We’ve been working really hard on her serve,” Cook said. “She really trusted it and did a good job and ran a bunch of points.”
Junior opposite Merritt Beason also came through late. She scuffled through the first two sets, amassing five kills and five errors. In the third set, she delivered six kills.
She had a kill from each pin before Murray’s ace. Then, with NU clinging to a 23-22 lead, Ally Batenhorst shanked a serve receive from Minnesota, Murray saved it with a high over-the-head pass and Beason buried the attack.
Beason finished with 11 kills, 10 digs and two solo blocks, including one on McKenna Wucherer to break a 22-all tie in the first set.
Cook said Beason made a couple of poor decisions attacking early in the match, but she settled down and used a few tips the coaches gave her to regroup and rise to the moment.
“She had a couple of really great kills in that (third) game three that we really needed,” Cook said. “She really bailed us out. It’s a big step for her. That’s the most she’s struggled probably this season, and she pulled herself out.”
Batenhorst finished with nine kills on a .333 hitting percentage and didn’t commit an error until midway through the third set. The junior outside hitter mixed up her attacks and found the floor with her power, hitting off the block and mixing in roll shots.
Batenhorst said she uses the roll shot when she can see the court and spots a hole in the defense or if the set is slightly behind her.
“It’s awesome,” she said about scoring off roll shots. “It’s kind of more of a chill point, rather than like a big kill, but it’s successful, and it’s always good to get points.”
Reilly led the offense with 39 assists with two kills, eight digs and a team-high four blocks, including several on jousts.
Andi Jackson added seven kills at a .357 clip, while Bekka Allick finished with five.
The Gophers hit .159 for the match, led by 11 kills from Wucherer. Taylor Landfair, last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year, finished with just seven kills on 24 attacks.
Senior opposite Lydia Grote also totaled seven kills. U of M libero Kylie Murr finished with more attempted sets (14) than digs (11) in the match.
Minnesota (5-5, 1-1) heavily relied on its pin hitters as its middle combined for just three kills on 15 attacks.
Jackson said it was tough in the middle to keep up with the block because she was covering so much ground running pin-to-pin.
NU finished with just seven blocks on the night, two fewer than the Gophers, but still made the U of M hitters work for points. Jackson said the key was to stay calm under stress and wait for the play to develop.
“It’s tough because if they do run that B-go, you’re wanting to jump with the middle, but you just have to stay calm, read the setter,” she said. “It’s the only thing you can do, and then just great footwork and great eye work.”
While the block wasn’t as effective as usual for the Huskers, their floor defense covered. NU outdug Minnesota 52-36, including 17-7 in the second set.
“That’s how we win is our defense,” Cook said. “I didn’t realize it was that big of a discrepancy. That’s a great job defensively by us.”