ANN ARBOR, Michigan — The matchup between the Big Ten’s two best attacking teams never turned into a shootout. Far from it, in fact.
With the offenses slipping gears, it was the block and defense — plus an impressive Big Ten debut from middle blocker Briana Holman — that led No. 1 Nebraska to its 26th straight win, 25-22, 25-20, 25-18 at No. 22 Michigan on Friday night.
Holman, the junior transfer from LSU, started strong and stayed hot with a team-high 11 kills on .556 hitting. She also added five blocks to help the Huskers (10-0, 1-0 Big Ten) pick up their first sweep in Ann Arbor since 2011.
Opposite hitter Kadie Rolfzen added 10 kills and led the Huskers with six blocks, helping stymie an attack that had come into the match No. 6 in the country with a .301 average. The Wolverines committed 24 attack errors and hit a season-low .118 in front of 1,800 fans at Cliff Keen Arena.
Senior middle Amber Rolfzen also had five blocks, and junior Kelly Hunter had four to help add to a season-best 13 team
“I’m relieved,” coach John Cook said in a post-match radio interview. “It’s a tough place to play. It’s hotter than heck in here. It’s the Big Ten opener, so I didn’t know how our team would respond, how Briana would respond.
“It’s just a little more something right now when it’s the Big Ten. Very happy to get out of here 3-0.”
Holman and Kadie Rolfzen were the only Huskers to reach double figures in kills on what turned out to be a meager night for Nebraska’s outside hitters. Left sides Mikaela Foecke and Andie Malloy combined to hit .060 on 50 swings, part of NU’s season-low .234 hitting percentage.
Still, Nebraska controlled the flow with several big runs, usually served by Hunter or libero Justine Wong-Orantes. Michigan led just once, at 18-17 in Game 1. That didn’t last long as Hunter served during a 4-0 run that included kills by Holman and Kadie Rolfzen, who also teamed up for a double block during the stretch.
Holman had five kills and three blocks in the opener and tied her season high in kills for the second straight match.
Wong-Orantes had both of her aces in a 5-0 run early in Game 3 to go up 7-2, and Nebraska was never seriously threatened in the finale. The senior libero also had a match-high 12 digs and added her first kill of the year on a deceptive front-row dump that gave the Huskers a 15-9 lead in the final set.
“She did a great job,” Cook said of Wong-Orantes. “I was more impressed with her serving. She blew open Game 3. She was getting runs every time she served. I don’t know what she was doing with her serve, but she had three where they passed it maybe two feet high.”
Nebraska focused much of its defense on Abby Cole, a 6-foot-5 middle blocker. Cole had six kills in Game 1, showing flashes of her 2014 match against NU when she had 19 kills in the 3-0 sweep in Ann Arbor.
But from there, the second-team All-American was slowed with three kills on 15 swings.
“We were putting two blockers on her,” Cook said. “We said, ‘We’re not letting her beat us.’ I’ve seen that before. We were not going to let that happen tonight. She’s their emotional leader. She’s their go-to. She fires them up, and if she’s not getting it done, the team goes with it.”
Senior Kelly Murphy led Michigan (11-2, 0-1) with 10 kills on 32 attacks to hit .125.
Though it wasn’t beautiful, the Huskers handled the pressure of a conference opener on the road. Now comes a 6 p.m. Saturday match at No. 20 Michigan State (12-1, 1-0), which hit .345 in a sweep of Iowa on Friday night.
It will be another test for the defense, but as NU showed Friday, the more it can shift the unease onto opponents, the more comfortable it becomes.
“I think what we’re trying to do is put pressure on teams,” Cook said. “And if you pressure them with everything you’re doing, serving, blocking, defense, siding out, eventually teams have a hard time playing at that level for a long period of time.
“Our M.O. is to pressure, to pressure, to pressure.”
Nebraska (10-0)……………25 25 25
At Michigan (11-2)…………22 20 18
NU: Holman 11-0-5, K. Rolfzen 10-0-6, Foecke 8-1-1, Malloy 6-0-2, Hunter 4-0-4, A. Rolfzen 3-0-5, Wong-Orantes 1-2-0
UM: Murphy 10-0-2, Cole 9-0-3, Davis 7-0-0, Lambert 5-0-0, Kiefer-Wright 3-0-1, Welsh 2-0-2, Mahlke 2-0-0, Crocker 0-0-3
Set Assists: NU 37 (Hunter 32, Wong-Orantes 4, Albrecht 1). UM 36 (Welsh 33, Lerg 2, Skjodt 1). Att: 1,800