Huskers quiet Illini to win third consecutive road match to open league play

CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — When the Big Ten Conference volleyball schedule was unveiled this summer, it might have taken some rose-colored glasses to envision the Huskers’ winning streak surviving three straight road matches to open league play.

But No. 1 Nebraska’s record stayed unblemished — and its run of overall consecutive victories remained intact — after a third win in six days on the home floor of a ranked opponent as the Huskers swept No. 24 Illinois 25-18, 25-22, 25-21.

On a night the Huskers played their 1,500th match in program history, NU quieted a Huff Hall crowd of 2,911 fans who aimed to break the arena record for noise on “Illinoise Night.” The decibel meters run by the Illinois marketing staff never peaked in a Game 1 blowout, and the Huskers made plays late in the second and third sets to silence a pair of Illini comeback attempts.

“It’s a really nice win,” NU coach John Cook said in a postgame radio interview. “I don’t think we played our best volleyball tonight.”

However, led by 12 kills from All-American opposite hitter Kadie Rolfzen and a strong defensive performance by NU’s backcourt, the Huskers never truly felt threatened in their 28th consecutive win and 11th straight victory over a ranked opponent on the road.

Nebraska (12-0, 3-0 Big Ten) eclipsed the .300 attacking mark for the ninth time this season, hitting .302 with junior setter Kelly Hunter handing out 38 assists.

However, Cook’s lament about imperfect volleyball could be seen in a comparison of Nebraska and Illinois’ outside hitters. NU’s Mikaela Foecke and Andie Malloy were effective at times combining for 17 kills, but their 10 combined errors breathed life into an Illinois team that largely played the Huskers evenly after the first-set blowout.

As did the spark provided by Illinois freshman outside hitter Jacqueline Quade. The reigning Big Ten freshman of the week led all players with 14 kills on .367 hitting, scoring many of her points on out-of-system rallies where it seemed the Huskers had the advantage.

“The thing we didn’t do well was letting their outsides get kills when we got them out of system,” Cook said. “That’s something we’ve got to work on and get a little better at.

“We needed to keep the pressure on them. We could’ve really made some runs if we’d have done a little better job not letting them get those out-of-system kills.”

Still, Nebraska’s defense largely held firm. The Huskers out-blocked the Illini 9-7 led by six blocks from senior middle blocker Amber Rolfzen, who also had six kills.

Senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes led Nebraska with 11 digs, and Annika Albrecht chipped in 10 digs to help the Huskers finish with a 47-33 advantage in recoveries.

“When you out-dig Illinois at their home by (14) digs, that’s a really good night,” Cook said. “Illinois, when they pass, they’re going very fast so you see there’s a lot of junk and mishits and kind of slop that comes over. That’s why our back row did a really good job. That’s something when we get on the plane I’m going to remind them the back row won tonight.”

Nebraska held on to win the final two sets thanks to a pair of big defensive plays at the net. With NU clinging to a 23-22 lead in Game 2, Amber Rolfzen and Malloy teamed up to block Illinois’ Naya Crittenden to give the Huskers set point. It was part of a rough night for Crittenden, who had twice as many errors (eight) as kills (four).

In Game 3, it was Foecke who snuffed out the Illini comeback with a solo block of Crittenden to put the Huskers up 24-21, and Briana Holman’s eighth kill of the night on the next rally put a period on the win.

With a victory against No. 19 Ohio State on Saturday night, Nebraska can tie the 29-match winning streak that ran between the 2006-07 seasons. That match will come at the Devaney Center, where the Huskers will play seven of their next nine matches after grinding out three straight wins away from home.

“I told them,” Cook said, “since I’ve been coaching at Nebraska I don’t know if we’ve had three ranked teams in five or six days on the road. I told them, I said ‘That is a heck of an accomplishment.’ It just shows them how hard they worked this summer, what great condition they’re in, and I guess their desire and will to win.”

Nebraska (12-0, 3-0 Big Ten)…………25 25 25

At Illinois (9-5, 2-1)……………………..18 22 21

NU (kills-aces-blocks): K. Rolfzen 12-1-3, Foecke 9-1-1, Holman 8-0-2, Malloy 8-0-3, A. Rolfzen 6-0-6, Hunter 4-0-2, Albrecht 2-0-0, Wong-Orantes 0-1-0

UI: Quade 14-0-3, Strizak 10-0-0, Stadick 7-0-2, Crittenden 4-0-3, Bastianelli 2-1-5, Welsh 0-1-0, Poulter 0-0-1

Set Assists: NU 46 (Hunter 38, Wong-Orantes 4, K. Rolfzen 3, Albrecht 1). UI 36 (Poulter 32, Donnelly 3, Strizak 1). Att: 2,911