By Lincoln Arneal
The doubt might have started to creep in after Penn State took a 7-1 lead in the first set and then ran away with it.
It may have grown slightly after Nebraska lost a late challenge that delivered a set point in the second frame.
Even after the Huskers won the following two sets, their luck looked like it was expiring after coughing up an 8-3 lead as PSU rallied to tie it at 9-all.
Yet, for all the struggles and adversity, top-ranked Nebraska delivered in the clutch to remain undefeated and emerge with a 15-25, 23-25, 25-18, 25-20, 15-13 reverse sweep in front of a record crowd of 6,645 at Rec Hall in State College, Pennsylvania, Friday night.
“We have not been punched like that this year,” NU coach John Cook said during his post game radio interview. “I’m thinking, ‘OK, it’s going to be a short night.’ But I’ll tell you what. We got a team of competitors. That’s about as deep in the hole as we can get, and have a reason to start doubting we could do it. They never stop believing.”
The Huskers (22-0, 13-0) could do little to stop Penn State early. The Nittany Lions hit .552 in the first set with 16 kills on 29 errorless swings.
The second set was much of the same as No. 16 PSU (15-7, 9-4) jumped out to a 9-4 advantage. Even though Nebraska rallied and cut its deficit to one-point four times, it never could get over the hump.
Penn State setter Mac Podraza, who finished with 50 assists, ran a near-perfect offense. She was creating one-on-ones and connecting with her middle blockers for easy kills. The Huskers struggled to pass the ball and stay in system.
Cook said NU prepared for the Nittany Lions to run middle if they passed well and made the Huskers pay early.
“Penn State was flawless in Game 1,” Cook said. “Every ball was on the money. They were thumping. … They’re bouncing balls on us. We don’t have a clue what to do.”
The Nittany Lions hit .298, a season-best by an NU opponent by more than 50 points. PSU also outblocked the Huskers 17-9 for the match.
During intermission, co-captain Merritt Beason said NU talked about returning to fundamentals and having every player do her part to play Nebraska volleyball. The junior opposite said NU embraced the adversity and challenges while controlling what it could.
“In the first two sets, we kind of were a little bit shaky, if I’m gonna be honest,” Beason said during an interview on BTN. “The way that we were able to completely reset and wipe the slate clean was really special for any young team, and a young team doesn’t have these kinds of experiences.”
Beason led the charge as she recorded 18 of her match-high 27 kills in the last three sets. She also outdueled Penn State outside hitter Jess Mruzik. They both finished with 54 swings, but Mruzik terminated six fewer attacks.
In the third set, Nebraska quickly changed the momentum by taking a 6-1 lead. Bekka Allick, Beason and Harper Murray all notched kills on the first three points of the set.
Penn State closed to three points several times, including as late as 18-15, but the Huskers never relented.
The fourth set was tighter as the teams traded side outs for the first 15 rallies. Nebraska finally broke through after a replay challenge turned a Murray service error into an ace, the first of the match. After one more side out, the Huskers won seven of the next eight points to establish a lead that would force a fifth set.
Murray added 15 kills and a team-high 14 digs.
Bergen Reilly finished with 52 assists and connected well with her middle all night. Allick tallied 11 kills at a .381 clip while adding five blocks. Freshman Andi Jackson added nine kills on a .389 hitting percentage.
Beason saved her best for last with six kills in the fifth set, including four that helped NU take an 8-3 lead. However, three hitting errors, a setting error and missed serve helped Penn State climb back into the tiebreaker set.
Ally Batenhorst was the one Husker who struggled as she recorded seven kills but also committed 10 hitting errors. Cook said he considered benching her but wanted to see how she handled the adversity. She had four blocks, including a key one in the fifth and delivered a kill to break the 9-all tie.
“I’m really most proud of Ali,” Cook said. “She was having a really hard night. We kept telling her to hang in there, find a way. I thought about subbing her, but I thought she’s going to work through it, and she did.”
Sophomore Maisie Boesiger entered the game for the first time in the fifth set to deliver a clutch serve with NU leading 11-10 that resulted in an overpass kill from Allick.
After Penn State tied it at 13-all following a block, Murray delivered a powerful kill that went off the dig and into the stands. Then Beason ended it with another kill off a set from libero Lexi Rodriguez, who tallied 13 digs and 11 assists.
Beason said she enjoys playing in tough environments as she sent the standing-room-only crowd home after Nebraska won its seventh straight against Penn State and 14th of the last 15.
“I love the adrenaline, and I don’t know, I just have always thrived off of them,” she said. “I know that my team needs me in those moments. What fuels me is when the team needs me the most, I’m going to step up, and I’m going to do my best to make sure that we win. I know they have my back so they give me the freedom to do that.”
The Huskers will get a day off before playing at Rutgers on Sunday at noon central.