By Lincoln Arneal
Bergen Reilly knew. Assistant coach Kelly Hunter encouraged Nebraska coach John Cook to challenge the play. Why not? The Huskers had nothing to lose.
With the scoreboard reading 14-14, Cook pulled his last challenge card of the match to request officials take a look at the previous play, which resulted in a Wisconsin point after Harper Murray’s attack sailed long.
The down official reviewed the film for less than a minute, seeing that Wisconsin’s CC Crawford had grazed the net with her hip, and then reversed the call, thus awarding the point and the match to Nebraska.
The announcement sparked an emotional party for the record 9,198 fans in the Devaney Center. The players rushed the court and exchanged hugs, a few tears were shed and the students mobbed Cook who wore a red cowboy hat, giveaways to the student section before the match.
The second-ranked Huskers completed a wild rally to knock off No. 1 Wisconsin 25-22, 17-25, 20-25, 26-24, 15-13 Saturday night. With the win, Nebraska (19-0, 10-0) ended a 10-match losing streak against their Big Ten rival and will undoubtedly be the top team when the new polls come out on Monday.
“Thank goodness they gave me an extra green card in Game 5,” Cook said. “I did my job and got the final point.”
Merritt Beason said NU wasn’t sure Wisconsin was in the net, but they saw it move and knew that Murray didn’t touch it, so they encouraged Cook to pull the green card.
“Coach (Cook) was kind of hesitant at first and we’re just like, ‘Coach, like you might as well. What do we have to lose at this point?’” she said. “We probably would have liked it to end a little more on a kill or some huge play, but at the end of the day, we got the win and that’s all that matters.”
The wild finish capped off a slugfest between the top two teams in the country. The Huskers hit a season-low .130 and finished with 44 attack errors.
Beason, who led the Huskers with a match-high 21 kills, the same amount she recorded last year when she beat Wisconsin while playing for Florida, said NU never had any doubt even with all the mistakes.
“This team is very gritty and very resilient,” she said. “We’ve been talking a lot this year about winning in the ugly no matter what. We always find a way and I think that’s one of our biggest strengths. We’re just going to have each other’s backs and figure out a way to get around it.”
After the Huskers won the first set by riding a 6-0 run that gave them a 9-4 advantage early, the Badgers regrouped and imposed their will on the match with their block.
UW (18-1, 9-1) recorded 12 stuffs in the second set as the Huskers hit minus-.077 with 12 kills and 16 errors. The Badgers still controlled the third set with an early 11-5 lead, but the Huskers gained a little momentum late with a 5-1 run that cut the deficit to 23-20. The rally, which included a point where Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield was given a yellow card, got the crowd back into it.
“You could feel our crowd willing us to keep going,” Cook said. “My ears are ringing right now. The crowd was awesome tonight and fired up and you can just feel it. Even though it’s Match 10 in the Big Ten, there was definitely a little something extra tonight.”
Harper Murray struggled most of the match before finding her groove in the fifth set. The freshman outside hitter amassed seven kills and 10 errors on 35 swings during the first four sets.
Murray previewed her turnaround late in the fourth set with a kill when the Badgers had match point, leading 24-23. Wisconsin was called for a blocking violation, one of their seven in the match, on the next point, before Bekka Allick sent the match to a fifth set with a kill.
In the deciding set, Murray terminated on seven of her nine attacks, including three straight kills that gave NU a 14-12 lead. After Sarah Franklin notched her 17th kill of the match to fend off a Husker match point, Murray came through on the final rally.
Cook said he chewed Murray out during a timeout in the fourth set, but she responded well in the clutch. He said Murray passed well – she was flawless on her 45 serve receives and recorded 15 digs – and delivered several vital serves in the fourth set.
“She’s a competitor and I’m super proud of her that she was able to find a way,” he said. “I told her in Game 5, ‘We’re going to get to rotations five and six, and you’re gonna have to kill some balls because you’re gonna have opportunities.’”
During Murray’s personal 3-0 run, Laney Choboy started the rallies at the service line. She served a match-high 23 times and missed only one while forcing Wisconsin to make tough passes. The freshman defensive specialist also recorded 11 digs and passed 29 Wisconsin serves.
“If I had to give an MVP tonight it might be Laney,” Cook said. “She made some digs that just inspired our side. I thought she played really, really well tonight. She’s not in the stats and nobody’s talking about her. She was a difference-maker for us tonight.”
Reilly finished with 50 assists and 17 digs to go with four kills. Libero Lexi Rodriguez also recorded 17 digs and notched her first kill of the season.
Andi Jackson added eight kills, while Bekka Allicked had seven.
The Badgers hit .223 for the match. Devyn Robinson returned from missing the last three matches with an injury to record 10 kills and five blocks. Temi Thomas-Ailara added 11 kills.
Crawford and Carter Booth recorded nine blocks but combined for just seven kills.
Even though they are just halfway through the Big Ten season, Cook said beating Wisconsin – something that hasn’t happened since 2017 – sets up this year’s team for more success. This win builds on what the Huskers already did with a win at Stanford and starting the Big Ten season with victories against Minnesota and Ohio State.
“Over the years of coaching, you’re looking for big wins like this,” he said. “That when you’re down and you come back, it’ll give us a big shot of confidence and belief in our team. You can’t manufacture that. You can’t train it in practice. It’s just something that has to happen throughout the season. Then this was the next really big one. This gives them a stronger, deeper belief.”