By Lincoln Arneal
LINCOLN – Fans had already started to head for the exits. The remaining ones stood and clapped for set point as it looked like No. 1 Nebraska was headed for another sweep.
Illinois had other ideas.
The Illini won the final four points of the third set to extend the match. They pushed the Huskers the next set, but in the end, NU put in the extra effort to score a 25-14, 25-14, 24-26, 25-22 victory Sunday afternoon in front of 8,584 fans at the Devaney Center.
NU coach John Cook said the Illini stepped up after the intermission and made Nebraska work for the win. He said outside hitters Harper Murray and Ally Batenhorst delivered critical points down the stretch with an ace and out-of-system kill, respectively.
“The biggest disappointment of the night was we didn’t finish that Game 3. We had a really good opportunity and then lost it,” Cook said. “Game 4 was a great game. … Our effort and hustle tonight was exceptional.”
No play was more emblematic of that effort than Laney Choboy’s save in the fourth set.
With NU leading 10-7, Jessica Nunge tried to hit down the line, but Lexi Rodriguez popped the ball up. It sailed to the end line, where Choboy chased it down with her feet on the edge of the court. She fell into the stands after she hit the ball over her head, which allowed Rodriguez to send a free ball over the net. The Illini went back to Nunge, but Murray and Bekka Allick roofed her for the point.
Rodrigeuz called the play “awesome.”
“I knew she was the only one on the team that was probably going to be able to get that, so I was just like, ‘Come on. Go, you got it!’” Rodriguez said. “I’m not surprised. She’s a hustler, and she makes plays like that all the time.”
Cook said he was screaming at Choboy to be careful as he had flashbacks to last season when Northwestern setter Sienna Noordermeer was injured chasing a ball into the stands. While players work on knowing their limit in practice, he said he’s proud of their effort.
Murray had a similar all-out hustle effort later in the set, where she chased down a misdirected dig that went to the side stands, but Illinois won the point after several impressive defensive plays.
“They compete and they’re fighting every point,” Cook said. “It may not always be pretty, but they’re fighting every point.”
Nebraska (25-0, 16-0) finished with a balanced attack as Allick led NU with 12 kills on 19 swings. Andi Jackson added nine kills on 11 attacks for a .818 hitting percentage.
The Huskers’ three pin hitters finished with double-digit kills, but Cook said Merritt Beason (11 kills on a .121 hitting percentage), Murray (10, .114) and Batenhorst (11, .250) struggled to put the ball away at times.
The middles carried the load after a solid outing on Wednesday against Northwestern. Allick recorded 11 kills while hitting .562, and Jackson had eight kills on 10 swings.
“It’s been a good week for the middles,” Cook said. “We’ve been working hard on it, and we need it. We need middles to be able to kill balls and I think they saved us several times tonight.”
For the first time this season, the Huskers finished with more aces (10) than service errors (eight). Their previous best outing was six aces and six errors against Rutgers. Murray led the way with four aces, while Beason added three. Reilly also notched two aces and Rodriguez had one.
“I think it’s huge (to have more aces than errors) because it’s something as a team we’ve been working on a lot,” Rodriguez said. “To see that it’s slowly paying off and like Coach says, serving is really important. We’re going back there and getting those big points is huge.”
The serving set the tone for the first two sets, as NU controlled the action and limited the Illini effectiveness. Illinois totaled 10 kills and 15 errors in the first two sets.
However, they turned it around behind all Big Ten outside hitter Raina Terry. The 6-foot-3 senior tallied 10 kills on 16 errorless swings in the third set. She recorded 16 of her match-high 20 kills in the final two sets. For the match, Illinois hit .109.
“I kept telling our team we got to side out because we weren’t stopping her,” Cook said. “She’s a great player. They gave her a lot of swings and she was in a great rhythm. She was hitting some good shots.”
With the win on Sunday and No. 19 Penn State knocking off No. 2 Wisconsin on Saturday night, the Huskers have a two-match lead in the Big Ten standings over the Badgers with four matches to go.
However, Cook said the Huskers aren’t taking anything for granted right now. Illinois (13-12, 8-7) came into the match having won six of their last seven matches and are fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
“You got teams playing for their lives,” Cook said. “Illinois has been a hot team. It takes a lot of mental effort and commitment. You can’t be counting down the days. Like we say, ‘We got to make it the best three hours of every day.’”