By Lincoln Arneal
John Cook thinks Sunday afternoons should be for football, walks and staying home.
For the third time this season, Nebraska had a working day on Sunday and fought through periods of low energy and a muted crowd of 8,175.
The third-ranked Huskers (16-1, 8-0 Big Ten) played well enough at the end of sets to stave off Northwestern 25-23, 25-16, 25-18 at the Devaney Center.
Cook said the crowd helped NU finish off the first set after it was tied at 23-all, but the Huskers lacked the intensity compared to Friday night’s sweep against rival Penn State.
“Our crowd was really quiet today, which I’m not blaming them but our team does feed off our crowd,” the Nebraska coach said. “Sunday afternoon matches are just kind of weird for everybody.”
Senior Madi Kubik said winning matches in the Big Ten when they aren’t playing their best is a big confidence boost.
“It’s hard to play great every single day,” she said. “What I’m really proud of our group for doing is just kind of leaning into that weirdness and the uncomfiness at the beginning of the match and just leaning on each other and bringing our own energy and finding a way to play a little bit better as we went along.”
The Huskers struggled out of the gate as Northwestern (13-7, 2-6) took a 9-6 lead. NU tied up the set twice but didn’t take the lead until a 4-0 run made it 20-18. However, the Wildcats weren’t finished as they battled back for a deuce at 23-all before Whitney Lauenstein and Kubik hammered kills to end the set.
NU appeared on its way to an easy second set as it staked an 11-5 lead, but the Wildcats climbed back to 15-13. However, the Huskers regrouped and won 10 of the next 13 rallies.
While the pin hitters were playing well, the Huskers’ middle blockers were largely absent during the first two sets as they combined for just four kills on 13 attacks. The NU setters made it a point to feed them in the third set, and Bekka Allick and Kaitlyn Hord delivered with six and three kills, respectively. The Huskers hit .333 in the third set, their best frame of the match.
Allick finished with a .571 hitting percentage, her fourth straight match above .385. The 6-foot-4 freshman tied her season-high nine kills for the third time.
“We just started pumping her a little bit more and she was dominating,” setter Nicklin Hames said. “In the middle of a play, she was yelling at me to set her, so I was like, ‘OK.’ And she got kills every time. She just brings a lot of energy and she’s such a competitor. She’s really fun to play with and she brought it today and helped us out a lot.”
The Huskers hit .296 with a balanced offense as Kubik and Lauenstein also finished with nine kills while Ally Batenhorst added eight. NU’s other two attackers – Lindsay Krause and Hord – recorded six and four kills, respectively.
Hames finished with 23 assists, while junior Anni Evans recorded 16. Cook said they settled in after starting a little erratic and got into a great groove by the third set.
“I think that wears teams down,” he said about the two-setter system. “In a 6-2, you gotta defend antenna to antenna the whole way with three hitters that are all pretty good hitters.”
While the pin hitters finished with 20-23 attacks, Hord received just eight sets. She made the most of them, terminating on half of her swings. The Lexington, Kentucky, native also led NU with five blocks.
Northwestern finished with a .195 hitting percentage, the third-highest by a Husker opponent this season. The Wildcats ran a much quicker offense than Friday’s opponent, Penn State. As a result, they tipped the ball more, which Nebraska sometimes struggled to defend.
Kathryn Randorf led Northwestern with 11 kills and Hanna Lesiak added nine.
Temi Thomas-Ailara entered the match third in the Big Ten with 3.96 kills per set but finished with eight kills on a .162 hitting percentage and didn’t record a kill in the second set.
“We know that she is a very aggressive hitter and she could be very dominant if we didn’t pay close attention to her,” said Kubik, who led NU with 12 digs. “I’m really proud of our game plan and the way we executed that coming out with what she ended up with.”