By Lincoln Arneal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The match and a trip to the regional finals was there for the taking.
However, Nebraska couldn’t score the final point as it failed to convert four match points in the fourth set against Oregon.
The third-seeded Ducks won the fourth set on its fifth set point, and they jumped out to a 13-4 lead in the fifth set for a 14-25, 26-24, 22-25, 32-30, 15-11 victory over NU on Thursday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center.
“It was a great match. Oregon made a couple of plays to win it,” NU coach John Cook said. “We played our hearts out. Sometimes that’s how those things go. There were a couple of deuce games and they made some great plays. I told the team I don’t really feel like we lost that match. I thought Oregon won it.”
Oregon will play Louisville, who swept Baylor, on Saturday in the regional final with a trip to Omaha on the line.
Nebraska (26-6) dominated the first set as it broke open an 11-9 lead with an 8-2 run. The Huskers also closed out the set with the final four points while limiting the Ducks to eight kills and seven errors.
Sophomore Ally Batenhorst said they were ready for the early 11 a.m. local start time and had a good mindset.
“Every play, we were just gonna be like next ball no matter what happens. We’re gonna focus on the next point ahead of us,” said Batenhorst, who finished with 15 kills, three blocks, two aces and 12 digs. “We brought a lot of energy and it was a really good match.”
NU looked poised to win the second set leading 22-20, but three straight kills put Oregon in front. The Ducks (26-5) missed a serve on its first set point but forced an NU hitting error to claim the set.
The third set was another tight affair, and Nebraska rallied to take the lead behind a 6-2 run for a 16-15 advantage. Oregon kept it close but lost both of its challenges during three points. The Huskers finished strong by winning three of the final four points as the set ended on a UO service error.
Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said while his team never lost the belief that they would win, the Huskers made them work for it.
Freshman Mimi Colyer led the Ducks with 26 kills, while Nuneviller added 16. Setter Hannah Pukis finished with 57 assists, 20 digs, six kills and two aces. The Ducks finished with 198 attacks and hit .217.
“Nebraska is so great. They’re a really good team,” Ulmer said. “That’s the toughest defense we played against, not even close. Their block was excellent. And they fought. They fought just as equally as hard.”
Nebraska unblocked the Ducks 14-7 and amassed 78 digs. Kaitlyn Hord led the Huskers with nine blocks to go with her seven kills at a .412 clip.
Nicklin Hames totaled 24 assists and 12 digs, while Anni Evans chipped in 22 assists and 15 digs. The Husker hit .199. Libero Lexi Rodriguez led NU with 18 digs, while Madi Kubik added 17 digs with nine kills.
The drama ramped up when it looked like the Huskers were on the verge of locking up a win in the fourth set.
The Huskers led 20-18 in the fourth set with Pukis serving. The next rally finished with an NU hitter error, but an Oregon attack appeared to have not cleared the net and Cook challenged. However, the call stood and the Ducks went on a 5-0 run for a 22-20 advantage.
Oregon had the first chance to win the set leading 24-22, but Lauenstein erased both set points with kills. After an error by the Ducks, NU earned its first match point. Morgan Lewis, who didn’t start the match but finished with 13 kills, terminated on the next play.
With the Huskers leading 26-25, Cook used his last substitution to bring in Maisie Boesiger to serve for Bekka Allick. He said he didn’t want Allick to serve because she hadn’t attempted one all match and thought the Huskers could close it out. NU had a swing to end it, but Kubik misjudged a bump set by Boesiger and didn’t connect cleanly on the attack.
“We had to gamble and go for it, and we lost,” Cook said.
The Huskers had another chance to close the match but failed to convert a free ball. Eventually, both teams sided out enough so the 5-foot-6 freshman had to play in the front row alongside Evans, who hadn’t played the front row since the season’s second match.
Oregon finally converted its fifth set point when Brooke Nuneviller dug an attack by Lauenstein, and the pass went over to the end and landed before any NU player could cover it.
“When you get to that point in the game, that’s when you really just want to take the biggest swings, get the biggest digs, serve the ball the hardest,” sophomore outside hitter Lindsay Krause said. “When you’re in that situation, you want to give it your all… It was pretty evident how much we were giving at the end of that set.”
Krause led Nebraska with 16 kills and a .324 hitting percentage to go with six blocks.
Nebraska led 2-1 in the fifth set, but Oregon grabbed the momentum by winning 12 of the following 14 points. Cook inserted Hames and Krause into the match to try to regroup. It worked temporarily as the Huskers fought off six match points before Kiari Robey ended the match.
Cook said they got stuck in a bad rotation, and he tried to change something up. He was proud of the Huskers’ resilience to try to climb their way back into the match.
“I also think that’s just an example that this team never quits,” he said. “I also told them that this is the grittiest team I’ve ever coached. All the stuff we’ve dealt with this year with lineup changes and players coming in and out, and all the changes – this team’s handled it great, and they never quit. They could’ve packed it in during game five there and I think we had a lot of people believing we might come back and tie that thing up.”