LINCOLN — Nebraska did not expect calm seas during an eight-day stretch that featured three matches against teams ranked in the top seven in the country.
So after smooth sailing in sweeps of No. 2 Penn State and No. 3 Minnesota, maybe it was inevitable the waters would become troubled at some point against No. 7 Wisconsin, and on Saturday the Huskers barely avoided the rocks before Annika Albrecht and Mikaela Foecke at last guided the Huskers into safe harbor to end a historic week for the program.
NU’s outside hitter duo combined for 33 kills to rally the Huskers from two sets down in a 22-25, 17-25, 25-20, 25-23, 15-8 win at the Devaney Center that improbably leaves Nebraska (11-3, 4-0 Big Ten) undefeated in conference play after beating three top-10 teams in just over a week for the first time in school history.
“I know that’s never been done before (at Nebraska),” NU coach John Cook said. “I’d like to know any team that’s done that in any sport.”
Chances of victory seemed slim after Wisconsin (11-2, 2-2) hammered its way to a 2-0 lead behind a balanced offense that had little trouble picking the Huskers apart in front of 8,453 fans. The Badgers hit .389 in Game 1 and used a 7-1 run to turn Game 2 into a blowout.
Nebraska’s cautious serving didn’t challenge the Badgers, letting Wisconsin’s freshman setter, Sydney Hilley, get in a rhythm and involve middle blockers Tionna Williams and Dana Rettke, who combined for 22 kills. The Huskers also had passing woes of their own, getting aced five times in the first two sets.
“We weren’t putting the balls on the money, and (setter Kelly Hunter) was having a hard time putting it where she needed to because the passes were so bad,” Albrecht said. “It just makes it hard on all the hitters, and it’s really hard to get into a rhythm.”
To shake things up out of the intermission, Cook started Nebraska in Rotation 4, instead of NU’s customary start in Rotation 5 or 6. Senior Sydney Townsend opened the third set with two aces, which set the tone for the Huskers to get back in the match.
Townsend, a Lincoln Pius X graduate, added a career-high 17 digs to give the Huskers a defense spark as well.
“Sydney played probably the best match of her life tonight,” Cook said. “Everything — her intensity, her energy, her communication, her fight, and her serving and passing and defense. She really carried us tonight emotionally.”
To get to a decisive fifth, Nebraska had to survive a dogfight in a fourth set that featured 10 ties. NU turned to Foecke late. After Wisconsin tied it for the final time 23-23 on one of Lauryn Gillis’ 13 kills, Foecke put down two of her 15 kills on the set’s final two rallies to force Game 5.
“In the first two sets, maybe I just didn’t have as much (confidence),” Foecke said, “and in the third set it’s like ‘Ok, we’re either going to win this set or we’re gonna lose it, so you might as well just give it all you got.’”
In the finale, Foecke ceded the spotlight to Albrecht, who took advantage with five kills when Wisconsin’s passing finally fell apart.
After committing three service errors early in the match, NU libero Kenzie Maloney served during the decisive stretch in Game 5, forcing two straight overpasses that Albrecht hammered to the floor to give the Huskers an 11-6 lead.
What was Albrecht thinking as she saw the Badgers float errant passes into her attacking position?
“It’s awesome,” she said. “It’s the coolest thing.”
Added Foecke: “Hammer time.”
As Nebraska started to tilt the serve-and-pass game in its favor, Wisconsin began to send the ball to more predictable spots, pulling the Badgers’ hitting percentage down to .120 over the final three sets. Outside hitter Kelli Bates led all players with 20 kills, and she added 10 digs.
“Gillis and Bates were just chewing up our block and hitting off our block,” Cook said, “and we finally got a little more disciplined and got some good touches.”
Albrecht’s 18 kills led Nebraska, while middle Briana Holman added 13 kills.
Four Huskers reached double-digit digs with Albrecht (12), Maloney (13), and Hunter (11) joining Townsend, giving nearly every NU player a key role in the Huskers’ third straight victory over a top-10 opponent.
It was an accomplishment that humbled Cook. The coach didn’t bite on a chance to puff his chest and say he was expecting to end the first two weeks of Big Ten play undefeated.
Cook, a San Diego native who grew up on sand and surf, also knows the value of getting safely back to shore.
“I think three weeks ago we were in Omaha getting smoked by Northern Iowa. So, no, I did not see this coming,” he said. “But I knew we were getting better.”
Wisconsin (11-1, 2-2)………….25 25 20 23 8
At Nebraska (11-3, 4-0)………22 17 25 25 15
UW (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Bates 20-1-1, Gillis 13-0-1, Williams 11-0-4, Rettke 11-2-6, Hilley 3-0-3, Duello 1-3-4, Loberg 0-0-1
NU: Albrecht 18-0-2, Foecke 15-1-2, Holman 13-0-4, Stivrins 8-0-5, Sweet 4-0-2, Hunter 3-0-1, Townsend 0-2-0
Set Assists: UW 56 (Hilley 51, Bates 2, Dodge 2, Rettke 1), NU 54 (Hunter 47, Townsend 4, Maloney 3)Att.: 8453