By Lincoln Arneal
Nebraska was staring at an upset, trailing 23-21 in the fourth set, two points away from a loss to Northwestern.
However, the fourth-ranked Huskers didn’t blink. NU scored the set’s final four points and then jumped out to a 9-3 lead in the fifth set to stave off the loss.
In the end, Nebraska survived for a 27-29, 25-20, 23-25, 25-23, 15-6 victory Sunday afternoon in front of a record Northwestern crowd of 4,019 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“It was good for us to get down and fight back and get into a slugfest like this,” NU coach John Cook said in his post match radio interview. “This is good for us.”
The match ended on a somber note as Northwestern’s Sienna Noordermeer ran into the stands and crashed into the first row of the bleachers during the fifth set. Play stopped for almost 10 minutes as she was carted off on a stretcher. Following the match, both teams gathered in a circle to share a prayer for the freshman setter.
“I feel awful for what happened. That was a tough one,” Cook said. “I’ve been coaching for how long and I’ve never seen that.”
The Huskers (21-2, 13-1 Big Ten) overcame an “unbelievable” performance by Temi Thomas-Ailara, according to Cook. The Northwestern outside hitter finished with 26 kills on a .333 hitting percentage.
The 6-foot-2 senior was at her best in the first set as she terminated on 11 of her 12 swings. (The only exception came on an NU block.). The Huskers had three chances to win the set but couldn’t convert any of them, including one service error. Thomas-Ailara recorded kills on the final three rallies to win the set. The Wildcats hit .344 in the first set, the highest single set against NU this season.
“If she has a big night, they are really good,” Cook said. “There was a long time where we couldn’t do anything. It impacted our side of the net because we are not used to somebody going off like that.”
The Huskers limited Thomas-Ailara to just three kills on 10 attacks in the second set as their offense took off and hit .368. Madi Kubik, Ally Batenhorst and Whitney Lauenstein each tallied four kills as NU recorded 18 of their 25 points on kills.
In the third set with Nebraska leading 15-14, Northwestern went on a 5-1 run to go back in front. Thomas-Ailara had back-to-back kills and added another at 24-23 to close the set.
Cook said the goal when she was in the front row was to side out and prevent scoring streaks.
“In the games we lost, she was up there and made runs,” Cook said. “She hit some shots, where we did everything right and it didn’t matter. She hit off our block, inside our block. There’s not many players in the country that could do that.”
Nebraska looked in control of the fourth set, leading 17-14, but Northwestern stormed back with a 7-2 run that included three NU hitting errors and a service error. After trading side outs, the Wildcats moved two points away from their fourth win over a ranked team this year.
However, Megan Miller served into the net. Then, Lauenstein and Bekka Allick teamed up for a block. Following an errant shot by Kathryn Randorf, Lauenstein found the floor with a tip to extend the match.
“At some point, they just made a decision that they had to go for it and play fearless,” Cook said. “What we were doing wasn’t working. They made that decision as a team, made a couple of plays and it gave us momentum.”
Lauenstein finished with 16 kills – her most since 25 against Creighton on Sept. 7 – with a .353 hitting percentage and seven blocks.
In the fifth set, Lauenstein teamed up with senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord to block Thomas-Ailara on back-to-back plays as NU jumped out to a 4-1 advantage. Hord led NU with nine blocks to go with seven kills on a .417 hitting percentage.
On offense, Kubik took over the final set with four kills during the first 12 rallies. The senior outside hitter totaled 15 kills and eight digs. Krause finished with 14 kills at a .379 clip, while Batenhorst added nine kills and three blocks.
NU hit .289 as a team as senior setter Nicklin Hames led NU with 31 assists and a season-high 19 digs. Libero Lexi Rodriguez added 10 digs and seven assists. Junior setter Anni Evans totaled 18 assists.
Allick had an up-and-down day. The freshman middle blocker finished with four kills, five blocks and three aces but also committed five hitting errors and missed four serves.
The Huskers have a few days off before they return Friday night to host Iowa and then play at No. 6 Ohio State.
“These are big matches coming up,” Cook said. “We got to regroup a little bit because we are sputtering right now.”