LINCOLN — Amber Rolfzen tiptoed up to the word no one ever uses when describing playing Penn State. The “E” word.
The senior middle blocker finally decided to use it, and justifiably so. At times during No. 1 Nebraska’s dominating defensive performance against No. 15 Penn State, the Huskers made it look easy.
Nebraska turned in perhaps its best defensive performance of the year to sweep the Nittany Lions 25-17, 25-14, 25-22 Wednesday night. In front of 8,407 at the Devaney Center, Nebraska (25-1, 16-1 Big Ten) put up a stifling block and usually dug up whatever got past it to hold Penn State to a season-low .065 hitting.
“It was just kind of — I don’t know if ‘easy’ is the word,” said Rolfzen, who had five blocks. “But you just knew with how the game was going and how everybody was playing that even if the ball went past us, we still were going to get it up and we were going to get a point.”
The Nittany Lions (19-9, 11-6) made for an unusual victim. They entered the match hitting .291 in Big Ten play and boasted the conference’s leader in kills in junior outside hitter Simone Lee, who averages 4.23 kills per set.
But the Huskers dragged both of those averages back toward the mean to hand the Nittany Lions their sixth loss in eight matches. Lee — who had 23 kills against NU on Nov. 4 — was held to six kills and seven errors on 31 swings. NU also bottled up All-America middle blocker Haleigh Washington, who was hitting .454 in Big Ten matches. She managed six kills on .158 hitting.
“Penn State, they really don’t try to fool you,” coach John Cook said. “They don’t set very fast tempo. They bring it. I think we are a pretty good digging team and a pretty good blocking team. I think we like playing teams that are physical and bring it because that’s probably kind of the way we train.”
NU learned its lessons from the five-set battle two weeks earlier, but the Nittany Lions still couldn’t pass the test posed by Husker outside hitters Andie Malloy and Mikaela Foecke.
After Malloy and Foecke each had 19 kills in the teams’ first meeting, Malloy led all players Wednesday with 11 kills and hit .400. Foecke had 10 kills as setter Kelly Hunter put both in favorable matchups against a variety of defensive looks.
“Based off the last game, we kind of guessed what they were going to do, but they kept switching it around,” Malloy said. “Kelly put up a good ball for Foecke and I to be successful on the outside, so it’s all to Kelly.”
Cook said Wednesday might have marked the best match of the year for Hunter, the team’s captain out of Papillion-La Vista South. She set Nebraska to a .290 hitting percentage while putting up 36 assists and a team-best 15 digs.
“Kelly, she was really putting those guys in some great spots tonight that they could really move the ball around and see the court,” Cook said. “They were in a really good rhythm tonight.”
Nebraska held Penn State to 14 kills with 15 errors the first two sets, while recording six of its nine blocks in Game 2.
The third set featured the night’s only drama with the teams trading 13 sideouts before Penn State took a 22-21 lead on an Amber Rolfzen hitting error.
But after Malloy’s final kill of the night tied it 22-22, junior Annika Albrecht went back to the service line and wouldn’t leave for the rest of the match. Lee fired just wide to put NU on top 23-22, and after Foecke scored to put the Huskers at match point, Albrecht dropped an ace in front of Penn State sophomore Clare Powers to end it.
Albrecht added 10 digs as Nebraska outdug Penn State 54-43 and made the Nittany Lions its 10th straight opponent to hit lower than .180.
“This entire season we’ve been working so hard on our blocking and back court,” Albrecht said. “Like Amber said, we knew they were going to get good touches up there, and it made it so easy to read behind them.”
Penn State (19-9, 11-6)…………..17 14 22
At Nebraska (25-1, 16-1)………….25 25 25
PSU (kills-aces-blocks): Frantti 7-0-1, Washington 6-0-3, Lee 6-0-0, Gorrell 4-0-2, Thelen 4-0-3, Powers 1-0-0, Detering 0-1-1, Holcomb 0-1-0. Totals 28-2-10.
NU: Malloy 11-0-3, Foecke 10-0-4, Holman 8-0-2, A. Rolfzen 6-0-5, K. Rolfzen 6-0-2, Hunter 3-0-0, Albrecht 0-2-0. Totals 44-2-16.
Set assists: PSU 27 (Detering 15, Weiskircher 12). NU 42 (Hunter 36, Wong-Orantes 4, Albrecht 1, K. Rolfzen 1). Att: 8,407.