MINNEAPOLIS — It ended at 10:49 p.m. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours she had put up a finale for the ages, career bests in kills and swings.
But there Mikaela Foecke stood, watching through the net as the silver and gold streamers fell for her opponents. Every bit of her was wrung out, and it was just short of enough.
Stanford endured a yeoman’s effort from Foecke to win its NCAA-leading eighth national championship in a match worthy of the stage, holding off the Huskers 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12 at the Target Center.
The 18,113 fans looked down at a stage where the Huskers’ senior star shone brighter than ever. She had 27 kills, and Stanford seemed to know each one of her 71 attacks was coming, but could do little to stop it.
Yet the Cardinal had its bevy of All-Americans, led by 19 kills from national player of the year Kathryn Plummer, and an astonishing match from libero Morgan Hentz, whose 32 digs including a handful of saves that bordered on miraculous. Holly Campbell had 15 kills, and Audriana Fitzmorris added 14 for Stanford.
“I’m very proud of our team and how hard they fought,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “We did some really good things tonight, competed really well. Not many people gave us a chance, but you get to a fifth game and anything can happen.”
Staring a 2-1 deficit in the face after a 25-15 defeat in Game 3, the Huskers dominated the fourth set. Lauren Stivrins was a perfect 6-for-6 as part of her career-high 19 kills. Jazz Sweet added five of her 10 kills in the set to reach her highest total since October 24.
The momentum carried into the early part of the fifth, when Foecke put down a pair of kills to give the Huskers a 3-1 lead, only to see Stanford turn it around with the part of the game that proved to be the difference, its serving.
With setter Jenna Gray firing BB’s, the Huskers couldn’t find the pass to get them in system. Three straight NU errors, capped by Foecke sending a shot long, put Stanford up 5-3.
“They played really well in that fifth game,” Cook said. “It seemed like they served really tough, and once we got out to a little lead, they made a nice comeback.”
Tied 9-9 after back-to-back Lexi Sun kills, the Cardinal pieced together the match’s most-influential stretch. Holly Campbell scored two of her 15 kills, and Gray dumped a tight pass to put Stanford up 13-10. On the next serve, Kate Formico put a ball near the sideline that officials ruled wide, but upon a video challenge from Stanford coach Kevin Hambly, was ruled the Cardinal’s ninth ace to extend the lead to 14-10.
Foecke’s final career kill was the first of two match points Nebraska would save, but sophomore Meghan McClure sealed Stanford’s 32nd consecutive win with a kill out of the back row.
“Both teams gave it all they got tonight,” Stivrins said. “It sucks to come up short, but…I don’t know. We’ll figure it out for next year.”
“I think Stanford made a few great plays and we had a few errors,” Foecke said. “It ended up costing us a few extra points that won them the match. When you’re only playing to 15 points, you have to side out very effectively. We let them get a few too many runs and weren’t able to come back.”
Stanford (34-1) had one more side out than Nebraska and out-blocked the Huskers 11.5 to 9. The Huskers finished with 73 kills to Stanford’s 64 with freshman setter Nicklin Hames handing out a career-high 62 assists.
But on an interview dais after the match, Foecke said she’d remember the plays that weren’t more than the many that were. How the Huskers fought off five set points in Game 1 before losing the opener thanks to five Stanford aces.
“I think there’s always plays you leave out there,” Foecke said. “Balls you could’ve dug. Kills you could’ve got. All of it.”
The loss ended Nebraska’s 11 straight wins in the NCAA tournament and was just the third defeat in 55 matches played in November and December in the four years Foecke and co-captain Kenzie Maloney were in Lincoln.
During an October that saw the Huskers lose five times against top-10 opponents, Cook thought the late-season lights might be too bright for a team with seven newcomers.
But the postseason spotlight always ended up focused on Foecke, even in defeat. She exits the sports biggest stage with 66 kills in three NCAA championship matches, and her 129 career kills in the final four is the third-most in NCAA history.
Agonizingly short of what she really wanted.
“Honestly, I don’t really care about that,” she said, reflecting on her line in the box score. “I really wish the score was flipped in the fifth set. Obviously it wasn’t good enough to win, so what do you do.”
No. 7 Nebraska (29-7)…………26 25 16 25 12
No. 1 Stanford (34-1)………….28 22 25 15 15
N (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Foecke 27-1-2, Stivrins 19-0-5, Sweet 10-0-5, Sun 7-1-1, Davis 5-0-0, Schwarzenbach 4-0-4, Hames 1-0-0
S: Plummer 19-1-2, Campbell 15-0-3, Fitzmorris 14-0-5, McClure 7-1-3, Alade 6-0-8, Gray 3-1-2, Formico 0-2-0, Wilson 0-4-0
Set Assists: N 66 (Hames 62, Maloney 4), S 64 (Gray 57, Hentz 4, McClure 2, Plummer 1)