By Lincoln Arneal
The roller coaster ride of emotions continued on Saturday for the Nebraska volleyball team.
Three days after losing their captain and defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles and less than 24 hours after losing a chance to win a share of the Big Ten title against Wisconsin, the fifth-ranked Huskers went back into scramble mode after setter Nicklin Hames was ruled out against Minnesota.
Hames tried to practice earlier Saturday but only lasted 20 minutes and was on the bench in street clothes under the weather. Nebraska adjusted by inserting junior Anni Evans into the lineup and flipping their opposite hitters.
While the Huskers looked sharp to start the match, they couldn’t hold No. 9 Minnesota, which earned its first sweep in Lincoln in 42 years with a 25-22, 25-23, 25-22 victory during senior night Saturday night at the Devaney Center.
NU coach John Cook compared all the moves they’ve made this week with the people who spin plates on sticks and try to keep them all up. The Huskers (24-5, 16-4) have been in scramble mode dealing with injuries and lineup changes.
“I feel for our players because it’s so hard to get a great team going,” he said. “Six days ago, we were humming. Then you can see one player, one situation – then two players. It changes everything. It’s why volleyball is an ultimate team game. It’s six people, 900 square feet, the ball’s moving fast.”
For the first 30 points of the match, Nebraska looked like its old self and led 19-11 in the first set.
However, the Gophers (20-8, 15-5) quickly changed the momentum and ran off four straight points. After a service error, Minnesota tacked on three more points. Whitney Lauenstein ended that streak, but the Gophers struck back with a 6-0 run. NU fought off one set point, but missed on its last serve of the set to complete a run where Minnesota won 14 of the final 17 rallies.
Cook said he couldn’t remember the last time an opponent made a run like that on the Huskers.
“I thought we came out playing great, but then you saw what happens when you don’t practice. You’re not in a rhythm,” he said. “We just got discombobulated and lost that first game with a big run.”
Lauenstein, who led Nebraska with 11 kills and a .364 hitting percentage, said NU became too passive and allowed the Gophers to dictate the action.
“We were trying to kill balls but were we really trying to kill balls, or we’re just trying to get them over and in?” she said. “In that moment, we should have grouped together a little bit more.”
Minnesota used a 7-1 run with five straight points to grab a 14-10 lead in the second set. The Gophers looked poised to close out the set, but NU staved off the first three tries before another service error ended the set.
In the third set, Nebraska went on an 11-1 run for a 14-8 advantage. However, Minnesota again rallied, turning a 16-11 deficit to a 23-18 lead behind a run with six unanswered points.
Lindsay Krause also added 11 kills for the Huskers. Outside hitters Madi Kubik and Ally Batenhorst both finished with five kills and 11 digs. Bekka Allick also had five kills with three blocks, while Kaitlyn Hord added four.
Sophomore Lexi Rodriguez also chipped in 11 digs. Evans finished with a double-double of 15 assists and 10 digs. Kennedi Orr tallied 18 assists as NU hit .153.
Taylor Landfair led the Gophers with 15 kills. Freshman Carter Booth added seven kills at a .636 clip with eight blocks. Minnesota outblocked the Huskers 10-5.
Cook said he is hopeful Nebraska can regroup next week and use practices to put together all the pieces for a postseason run.
“We played hard. We competed hard. We didn’t give up. Our players deserve some credit for that. Minnesota deserves credit for winning that match. They played really well tonight and it has just been a tough week for our players.”
After the match, the Huskers honored its four seniors – Kubik, Knuckles, Hord and Hames – in an emotional ceremony.
“Not being able to get that win for them on senior night was really hard for a lot of us because they’ve given so much to this program,” Krause said.
Nebraska will learn its postseason fate Sunday night when the field of 64 will be announced at 6:30 on ESPNU. The Huskers will likely host the first- and second-round matches but will go on the road for the regional round. The final four will be played at the CHI Health Center in Omaha.