Courtesy of Nebraska Athletics
The No. 10 Nebraska volleyball team came up just short of its sixth national title on Saturday night, losing a five-set heartbreaker to No. 4 Wisconsin at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, in the longest Championship Match in NCAA history in front of the largest crowd in NCAA history (18,755).
The Huskers, who were the first to 20 points in three of the first four sets, won the first set 25-22, before Wisconsin took the next two sets 31-29 and 25-23. NU fought back to force a fifth set with a 25-23 come-from-behind victory in set four. Wisconsin scored the first seven points of the decisive fifth set – the first time the Badgers had led by more than four points all night – but Nebraska stormed back and fought off three match points before the Badgers (31-3) closed out a 15-12 victory to win their first NCAA title.
In the match, the Badgers won 116 points to Nebraska’s 114. NU (26-8) finished as the NCAA Runner-up for the fifth time in school history to go along with the Huskers’ five national titles.
Madi Kubik had a double-double for Nebraska, producing a match-high 19 kills and adding 14 digs to lead a season-high five Huskers with double-digit kills. Her 19 kills tied her season high while her 14 digs were one shy of her season high in that category. Kayla Caffey added 15 kills on 30 swings, while Lindsay Krause put down 12 kills, Ally Batenhorst added 11 and Lauren Stivrins had 10 kills in her final match. Nicklin Hames joined Kubik with a double-double as Hames dished out a season-high 56 assists and added 23 digs, one shy of her career high and her third 20-dig effort of the season.
Defensively, Keonilei Akana, Lexi Rodriguez and Kenzie Knuckles joined Kubik and Hames to give Nebraska five players with double-figure digs. Akana had a career-high 24 digs, while Rodriguez added 13 digs and Knuckles had 10 digs. Stivrins and Krause had five blocks each to lead Nebraska in that category, but it was the Badger block that made the difference in the match.
Nebraska finished with eight more kills than Wisconsin, but the Badgers blocked the Huskers 24 times, the most blocks ever by a Nebraska opponent in the rally-scoring era. The Huskers had 10 blocks and held Wisconsin to its second-lowest attack percentage of the season (.183), but Nebraska committed a season-high 39 attack errors and hit only .141 in the match. Nebraska out-dug Wisconsin 93-79. In the service game, Wisconsin had seven aces but committed 14 errors, while Nebraska had four aces and nine errors.
Anna Smrek led four Badgers in double-figure kills with 14, and she hit a match-high .429. Dana Rettke, the National Player of the Year, had 11 kills and 13 blocks for the Badgers, including a kill on match point. Lauren Barnes had a match-high 31 digs for Wisconsin.
NU jumped to a 5-1 lead with three kills and an Akana ace, but Wisconsin used a 6-1 run to go ahead by one. Locked at 9-9, two big kills from Caffey helped spot NU a 12-10 edge. Kubik swatted three straight kills before the media timeout, and a Krause swing completed the 7-1 spurt at 16-10. Kubik’s fifth kill of the set made it 18-12 as the Badgers called for a break.
UW won four of the next five rallies before NU took its own timeout still up 19-16. With the Badgers threatening within two, a UW service error and a Caffey/Krause block on Julia Orzol pushed it to 22-18. NU hit set point on another Badger service error, but UW claimed the next three points with a pair of Smrek blocks to trim it to 24-22. Stivrins wasted no time with a kill out of the final timeout to give Nebraska the first-set win.
NU had 10 kills with just one error on its first 22 swings, but finished the set hitting .174. Wisconsin came in at .171 and had a 5-1 blocking advantage.
Kubik had five kills in the set and Caffey had three more on four swings, leading five Huskers with multiple kills. Akana had seven digs and an ace.
Wisconsin grabbed the first point with its sixth block before NU went on a 5-0 tear with four straight kills between Caffey and Kubik, plus a Caffey/Krause stop. UW cut it to 7-5 before an errant serve and a Kubik kill from the back row boosted the lead to four. A Batenhorst kill and another Caffey/Krause block got it to 12-7 before a Badger timeout.
A 4-0 UW run reduced the lead to 13-11, prompting an NU break. The two squads traded the next six rallies and UW got within one on an ace, but Hames and Stivrins teamed up to block Orzol at 17-15. Again with UW threatening within one, Caffey was nearly automatic, with two late kills helping it to 20-18. The Badgers regained the lead behind Grace Loberg and Rettke, who each had a kill and block to make it 21-20.
It was Caffey again out of the Husker timeout, sniping a kill to tie it at 21-all. Krause and Stivrins blocked Orzol to stall it again at 22-22, and Kubik connected for a kill at 23-23. After a Badger attack error gave NU set point, UW called for a timeout. A Husker service error followed by another from UW prompted another timeout with NU up 25-24. But the Badgers then blocked Batenhorst to lock it again and took the lead on a Jade Demps kill.
Caffey’s seventh kill of the set — and 10th of the night — tied the set once more at 26-26. After Robinson got one of her own, it was Caffey again from the middle, followed by a Knuckles ace for a 28-27 Husker lead.
Kubik registered another kill to put NU ahead 29-28, but Rettke tallied for a 29-29 lock. Two Badger blocks ended the set, bringing the match to 1-1.
Caffey and Kubik each had 11 kills for Nebraska through the first two sets. UW hit .237 to NU’s .143 and out-blocked the Huskers 8-4.
Neither team could gain more than a two-point foothold before UW went up 12-9. The Huskers trailed 15-13 at the media timeout.
Krause swatted a pair of kills at 17-15 and 18-16, but Smrek and Rettke terminated back-to-back to give the Badgers a 20-16 lead. Kills from Stivrins and Kubik preceded a UW attack error, which cut it to 21-19.
At 23-20, the freshman duo of Batenhorst and Krause each blasted a kill to bring the Huskers within one. But Robinson took matters into her own hands for Wisconsin, with consecutive kills closing another deuce set at 25-23.
NU broke up at 3-3 tie with a back-row kill courtesy of Knuckles. They got out a 5-5 lock when Batenhorst blocked Hilley, followed by a Caffey kill and a Hames ace to move ahead 8-5. The Badgers stalled it once more behind a kill, a block and an ace of their own. UW later used a Sydney Hilley kill and back-to-back blocks to go up 11-10 before an NU timeout. Krause tied it twice more on kills at 11-all and 12-all.
The set tied five more times up to 17-17 — the last time on another Caffey swing. UW had an attacking and a setting error, bringing a Badger timeout with NU up 19-17. THe Huskers continued their assault, stretching the run to 5-0 with back-to-back Stivrins blocks with Krause and Kubik for a 21-17 edge and UW’s final timeout.
A Kubik kill extended the Husker advantage to 23-19. After a Badger service error brought it to 24-20, UW staved off set point with two kills from Loberg and Orzol, which prompted an NU timeout. Akana came up with a clutch dig during an incredible rally, leading to a final kill from Batenhorst that sealed the set at 25-23 and sent the match to a decisive fifth set.
Wisconsin dug the Huskers a 7-0 hole to start set five. Batenhorst registered NU’s first point with a kill, and both sides turned error-prone from there.
With NU down seven, the Badgers committed three straight errors and called for a timeout at 9-5. An attack error apiece brought the tally to 10-6 UW. Batenhorst then terminated to trim the Badger lead to three, and Stivrins did so again at 11-8. Wisconsin would stretch the lead back to five and earn its first match point at 14-9. But back-to-back kills from Krause and Kubik forced a Badger timeout with the lead trimmed to three. Wisconsin then thought it had won after a Kubik attack on the next rally was ruled long, but the Huskers challenged and a touch was ruled to give Kubik the kill. With the gap closed to 14-12, the Huskers played grea defense during a long rally, but Rettke ended the match with a kill.