Wisconsin defeats NU in Four Friday Night

By Lincoln Arneal

Nebraska has spent all season building to have a shot at knocking off defending national champion Wisconsin. However, just when it appeared the Huskers were trending in the right direction, tragedy struck.

NU lost Kenzie Knuckles to a knee injury on Wednesday, forcing them to scramble its lineup 48 hours before taking on the Badgers. No. 5 Nebraska played well in spurts, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Wisconsin’s relentless attack as the Badgers earned a 25-21, 21-25, 25-21, 25-19 victory Friday night at the Devaney Center. 

With the win, Wisconsin (24-3, 18-1) won its 17th match in a row this season, 10th straight over the Huskers and clinched its fourth straight Big Ten championship.

NU coach John Cook said Knuckles’ injury was a freak accident as she was backpedaling during the end of practice. He said he has only seen two ACL injuries in his 23 years at Nebraska. 

“We had our heart ripped out on Wednesday,” Cook said. “We had a great week of practice. Our team was peaking. It felt really good, and then that happened and it just took all the wind out of the sails.”

Even though Knuckles only plays back row, she has an enormous impact on the Huskers. The senior co-captain had only missed five sets in her career but spent the match on the bench wearing a full-leg knee brace. Cook called Knuckles the best middle-back passer in the country and the team MVP for the heart she plays with and her impact on other players.  

During the postgame press conference, sophomore Ally Batenhorst got emotional when talking about what it was like not to have Knuckles on the court. 

“We really look up to her,” she said. “She’s just a big leader and cares a lot for her teammates, and it’s really hard.”

As a result of Knuckles’ absence, the Huskers (24-4, 16-3) switched around its lineup with Batenhorst playing all six rotations. In addition, Batenhorst flipped positions with Madi Kubik to give the senior outside hitter more rotations in the passing zone. 

Batenhorst finished with 18 serve receptions while giving up just one ace. Wisconsin servers targeted Kubik and libero Lexi Rodriguez 34 and 29 times, respectively. 

Even though she finished with 13 digs, Kubik struggled on offense, finishing with seven kills and seven errors.  

“I think it affected Madi tonight not having her soulmate out there,” Cook said. “It’s got to be really tough.” 

The Huskers played like a team without its emotional leader to start the match, giving up four kills on the first four rallies. Wisconsin led by as much as 22-13 before calling their last timeout. During that break, Knuckles talked emphatically with her teammates, urging them to fight harder. 

“She was just reminding us to trust our training, believing in what we got and we have to leave it all out on the floor because at the end of the day, we were playing for a title today and we had a chance,” senior Kaitlyn Hord said. “She said some really amazing things that did fire us up.” 

NU regrouped with five straight points out of the timeout, but the Huskers couldn’t recover from the slow start. Batenhorst carried the load offensively early with six of her 10 kills coming in the first set. She accounted for more than 40 percent of NU’s kills and attacks in the set. 

Nebraska carried the momentum in the second set and slugged it out early. Nebraska took the first lead larger than two points at 21-18 after a 4-0 burst. The Badgers committed three hitting errors and Rodriguez capped off the run with an ace that gave the Husker the cushion to even the match. 

The third set also featured a 17-17 tie, but this time the Badgers’ attackers delivered as Julia Orzol and Devyn Robinson recorded kills. Robinson finished with a match-high 16 kills and a .323 hitting percentage. 

After Nebraska tied the fourth set at 8-all with four straight points, the Badgers took over with a 6-0 run. The Huskers closed to 22-18 but couldn’t muster enough offense down the stretch. 

“We went soft a little bit sometimes and when we needed to really attack them,” Batenhorst said. “We gave them a lot of free balls and we weren’t as aggressive as we probably should. have been from the start. I think that really bit us in the butt.”

Even though the offense was erratic, Nebraska’s middle blockers played their best-combined match of the season. Hord tallied a season-high 13 kills on a .500 hitting percentage to lead Nebraska. Freshman Bekka Allick added nine kills and six blocks. 

“We just realized that in order to be successful as a whole, we have to have everybody on offensively,” Hord said. “We’ve been working on it all week in practice – different timing, new tempo and it really paid off.”

Lindsay Krause totaled 12 kills and hit .370. Nicklin Hames finished with 25 assists and nine digs, while Kennedi Orr added 17 assists. Libero Lexi Rodriguez amassed a match-high 17 digs. 

The Huskers hit .200 for the match, but too often tried to tip over the Wisconsin block or hit a roll shot that didn’t go for kills often enough. The Badgers took advantage and went on runs that made a difference in each set they claimed. 

“We’re a little bit out of sync at times, especially in chaotic plays,” Cook said. “We were kind of uptight and were very undisciplined. We couldn’t put enough pressure on Wisconsin with our block and defense and transition.”

The Badgers finished hitting .235 as Sarah Franklin tallied 12 kills and Anna Smrek added 11. 

The Huskers won’t have long to dwell on the loss as they take on No. 9 Minnesota Saturday night. 

Even though the Big Ten title is no longer on the line, the Huskers still have seeding to play for and a solo runner-up finish. In addition, they will honor the four seniors – Kubik, Hord, Hames and Knuckles after the match. 

 “We got to clean it up and play a little better than we did tonight,” Cook said. “Minnesota is great, great team and we got to see if we can play a little sharper  and cleaner and see if we can get a win.”

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