By Lincoln Arneal
After failing to close out the first set on six attempts, Nebraska looked right back to the player who had powered their success up to that point – freshman Harper Murray.
Murray had given the Huskers a 24-10 lead with a 6-0 run that included two back-row kills and an ace. However, NU had trouble finishing off SMU on Sunday afternoon as it failed to terminate its next six swings.
Eventually, setter Bergen Reilly went back to Murray in the back row, who fired the ball off a Mustang defender for the 25th point for her eighth kill in the set on 11 errorless swings.
Murray earned MVP honors of the Ameritas Players Challenge as the fifth-ranked Huskers finished the weekend 3-0 with a 25-16, 25-23, 25-16 victory over SMU at the Devaney Center.
“Everyone on our team already knew she was a stud, but in her first three games, she proved it to everyone,” junior Lexi Rodriguez said. “We see it every day, but it was pretty cool for everyone else to get to see it.”
Murray struggled in the second set as she said her connection with Reilly was a bit off, but she finished with 14 kills on a .310 hitting percentage to go with 10 digs.
The Ann Arbor, Michigan, native said she has developed a good connection with Reilly, who tallied 29 assists, but they still have work to do. After five hitting errors in the second set, Murray regrouped and put together an unblemished stat line in the third set.
“In that first set, we just had a rhythm going, and it was going pretty well,” Murray said. “Then in the second set, there were a couple of balls that were off for both of us. But overall, she did a great job, but we still got to work on our connection a little bit more in those tight moments.”
Murray was a primary target for SMU servers as she was targeted 13 times. In NU’s three matches, she passed the most serves on the weekend. Murray made progress against SMU, only giving up one ace when she stepped aside thinking a ball was headed out only for it to land on the line. She committed three reception errors in each of the first two matches.
“At first, it was kind of surprising for it to actually happen so I struggled passing at the beginning,” she said about being the primary serving target. “Getting used to that is going to be really big for me, and I think having Lexi and Laney (Choboy) next to me is gonna help a lot.”
Nebraska’s offense sputtered at times on Sunday and finished hitting .144. Freshman middle blocker Andi Jackson was the only NU player to appear in all three sets who didn’t have at least four hitting errors. She had five kills and a .333 hitting percentage.
The weakest position was Nebraska’s second outside hitter. Juniors Lindsay Krause and Ally Batenhorst and sophomore Hayden Kubik combined for three kills and seven errors on 28 attacks, 21 of which came from Krause.
Cook said one of them needs to seize the opportunity.
“They are getting great sets,” he said. “Hopefully, somebody’s going to step up and take that spot.”
On the other side of the net, NU’s defense looks ready for the season. The Huskers recorded 11 blocks, including seven from Jackson, and limited SMU to hitting .045. In the first two matches, Utah State finished with a .061 hitting percentage and Lipscomb hit .091.
SMU (1-2) was led by eight kills from Natalie Perdue, who hit .172. The Mustangs’ most efficient attack was their setter Celia Cullen, who amassed four kills largely on winning jousts at the net.
Krause was in on five blocks and Bekka Allick recorded four. Rodriguez led the floor defense with 14 digs while Reilly added nine. Rodriguez and Choboy, who had seven digs, were both named to the all-tournament team.
“I think our defense is really solid,” Cook said. “Our blocking today was – we were touching everything. And that’s a pretty nice team and they go pretty fast. So it was a defensive clinic we put on today.”
Cook said the one lesson he learned from the weekend is he doesn’t like playing three matches in three days. He said both teams as well as the crowd of 8,311 were flat on Sunday. He said it’s hard to get up for three straight days. He thought the Huskers looked like they had good energy but were “out of whack,” and SMU looked gassed.
“Playing three matches in three days validates that we’re not going to do that anymore,” Cook said. “We’re not going to go back to playing two matches in one day. In the future, we are just going to have two matches in a tournament and find other days to play matches.”
Ameritas Players Challenge All-Tournament Team:
- MVP: Harper Murray, OH, Nebraska
- Laney Choboy, DS, Nebraska
- Lexi Rodriguez, L, Nebraska
- Natalie Perdue, OH, SMU
- Shelby Capllonch, OH, Utah State
- Kennedi Boyd, MB, Utah
- Delaney Smith, L, Lipscomb