Nebraska beats Michigan in four to clinch outright Big Ten championship

Nebraska beats Michigan in four to clinch outright Big Ten championship
Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — The streamers eventually flew, the banner eventually was unveiled and Nebraska’s seniors ultimately got their happy ending.

But, what’s a good story without a little drama?

No. 18 Michigan put a scare into the top-ranked Huskers’ Big Ten championship hopes on Senior Night before two sophomores helped Nebraska pull out a 25-19, 25-17, 22-25, 25-21 win Saturday to earn NU’s first Big Ten title since 2011.

Less than an hour later, it became official the Huskers would have the sole claim to the conference crown when No. 2 Minnesota rallied for a five-set win over No. 3 Wisconsin to knock the Badgers out of title contention.

“It’s been our goal since January,” senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes said. “We actually checked it off our goal list in the locker room. It’s something that we get to embrace, but now it’s on to the (NCAA) tournament.”

Wong-Orantes was one of two seniors who reached big career milestones in their final regular season match. Already the program’s all-time digs leader, Wong-Orantes had a team-best 17 digs to become the first Nebraska player ever to surpass 1,800 in her career. Kadie Rolfzen also had 11 kills put her past 1,500 career kills, the seventh Husker ever to reach that level.

But on a night of sub-par ball-handling and a sluggish attack, the Huskers turned to underclassmen for the big swings late to seal the title.

Sophomore Mikaela Foecke somehow turned NU’s shoddy passing into a match-high 18 kills on .417 hitting, and classmate Olivia Boender scored five of her seven kills in the fourth set for Nebraska (27-2, 18-2 Big Ten), which survived despite hitting .180 or lower in three of the four sets.

After Foecke fired seven kills in Game 2 to give the Huskers a 2-0 lead, NU endured a chain of pratfalls before pulling in the championship trophy. Wayward shots, errant touches, bumbling into the net, it was all there in a third set calamity in which Nebraska needed a late 6-0 run just to make the score respectable after Michigan led 24-16.

“I think the pressure of trying to win got to us a little bit,” Coach John Cook said. “It’s been a long grind for ten weeks to get to this point, and you want it so bad that sometimes you just try a little too hard.”

Boender, who relieved starter Andie Malloy in Game 3, scored on back-to-back rallies to help NU to a 7-2 lead in Game 4, and added a deft roll shot to catch Michigan off guard for an 18-9 lead.

“One of the things I was really thankful for as a coach with Olivia,” Cook said, “is Olivia has gained the trust of her team. Her team believes in her when she goes out there, and that’s why you see her play so free.”

But again the Wolverines found a way to make it interesting. Ally Davis’s kill capped a 6-1 Michigan run to cut the deficit to 22-20 before Nebraska turned to Foecke to close it out with NU’s last three kills.

With the Huskers up 23-20, Foecke’s best swing of the night put Nebraska at match point. Annika Albrecht floated a bump set from the back row, and Foecke buried it between Michigan defenders from a tough angle for a 24-20 lead.

“All I can remember is just Justine yelling ‘swing away,’ and I just knew she had my back,” Foecke said. “I think when you hear someone behind you yelling ‘swing away,’ it gives you complete confidence to just go up and rip the ball. I knew that if I did get blocked, she’d be right there to cover me.”

Carly Skjodt and Claire Kieffer-Wright each had 13 kills for Michigan (22-10, 11-9) with Kieffer-Wright reaching double figures for the eighth straight match.

It’s fitting Nebraska’s title-clinching win was largely a grind, the word several players and Cook used afterward to describe the season. NU recorded 12 blocks, with seven coming from senior Amber Rolfzen, and held the Wolverines to .115 hitting.

After the match, a Big Ten official handed the team the championship trophy, and NU unveiled the 2016 conference championship banner, which had been installed in the Devaney Center rafters in anticipation of a win. Red-and-white streamers mingled with confetti before the crowd watched the Nebraska seniors honored on the court with their parents.

The festivities handled, Wong-Orantes, Kadie Rolfzen, and Foecke, had an eye on a TV in the postgame media room, and watched Minnesota finish Wisconsin to give NU the outright title. Did it mean more to be sole champs, they were asked?

“Yes, for sure,” Foecke said.

Added Wong-Orantes: “I don’t want to share it.”

They wouldn’t. When the Gophers took their match point, the trio headed to the locker room with little exclamation. There are more goals to get. Nebraska will surely be one of the top four seeds in the NCAA tournament when the brackets are unveiled on ESPNU Sunday night at 8. That would allow Nebraska to play the first four rounds of the postseason at the Devaney Center as it attempts to get back to the final four and repeat as national champions.

But, Cook said he would be OK with at least a little revelry. The coach weighed whether or not to wear his new “2016 Big Ten champions” hat during a postgame interview. Finally, he put it on.

The coach isn’t the most comfortable in a ball cap, but conference champs? That’s something the Huskers wear pretty well.

“I just told them this has been one of the toughest grinds for a conference championship,” he said. “I don’t know how much they really appreciate it or understand it, but I want them to celebrate this as a great effort by them in the toughest conference I’ve ever seen.”

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