LINCOLN — When Nebraska’s grip on sole possession of the Big Ten lead went from tight to tenuous on Wednesday night, the Huskers turned to their steady senior to remain unbeaten in the conference.
Outside hitter Annika Albrecht had eight of her match-high 18 kills in the decisive fourth set as No. 4 Nebraska beat No. 14 Michigan State 25-19, 25-15, 22-25, 25-19 on Wednesday night at the Devaney Center.
The win left Nebraska (12-3, 5-0 Big Ten) as the lone team without a loss in conference play, ending a 13-day stretch in which the Huskers notched victories over four teams ranked in the top 15 in the country.
“There’s not been a single day that’s been easy,” NU middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said. “Every single night has been a challenge in the Big Ten. It’s just awesome to go out there and get after it with our team because that’s what we work hard for and that’s what we want.”
Stivrins, a redshirt freshman, joined freshman opposite hitter Jazz Sweet in helping to balance the Nebraska attack. Both first-year starters finished with 10 kills to complement Albrecht on a night when little came easy for the Huskers in the first three sets.
Michigan State (11-3, 4-1) came into the match holding opponents to .133 hitting, the second-lowest mark in the conference, and the Huskers became another team slow to solve the Spartans’ defense, hitting .163 heading into the fourth set.
“They’re a great defensive team, whether they were touching on the block, or they were digging everything,” said Albrecht, who added 15 digs for a double-double. “I just think, all around, we take that personally and we want to put the ball away. That’s our job up there.”
But Nebraska took the first two sets with sturdy block-and-defense play of its own. The Huskers picked up five blocks and held Michigan State below .100 hitting in each of the first two sets.
The hiccups came in the third set, which the Huskers appeared to have in hand leading 19-15. Then the Spartans showed more like the team that picked up road wins over Minnesota and Wisconsin with Holly Toliver putting NU on its heels from the service line. The Spartans ended the set on a 10-3 run to cut the Huskers’ lead to 2-1 in the match.
“I think we got a little too comfortable in Game 3 and missed some plays at the end there to win that,” Huskers coach John Cook said, “but another great response in Game 4.”
The Huskers responded by hitting .395 in the fourth set. NU quickly built an 18-8 cushion as Albrecht, setter Kelly Hunter and freshman Hayley Densberger each served 5-0 runs.
And after Michigan State brought a final bit of tension into the match with a 6-1 run to cut Nebraska’s lead to 23-18, the Huskers drew up a play for Albrecht out of a timeout designed to isolate her one-on-one against her former club teammate, Michigan State setter Rachel Minarick.
Albrecht scored to put the Huskers at match point, and ended the match two rallies later with her final kill out of the back row.
With a trio of jump servers, Michigan State led the conference in aces coming into the night. But the Huskers didn’t allow an ace on Wednesday while dialing up five of their own, including two each by Albrecht and libero Kenzie Maloney.
“They have three spinners on their team, and you don’t see that very often in the women’s game,” Albrecht said.
“We weren’t trying to get (passes) perfect. We were just trying to get them high.”
Brooke Kranda, Michigan State’s 6-foot-6 senior opposite hitter, led the Spartans with 16 kills, while Autumn Bailey (11 kills, 18 digs) and Toliver (11 kills,14 digs) each had double-doubles.
Mikaela Foecke fell one kill shy of a double-double for Nebraska with nine kills and 10 digs. Hunter had 45 assists and 14 digs, and led the Huskers with five blocks.
Nebraska’s next three matches come on the road, starting Saturday at Iowa. The Hawkeyes are unranked, but beat No. 22 Michigan 3-1 on Wednesday in Iowa City. Then comes a rematch with No. 7 Wisconsin in Madison and a trip to No. 18 Purdue.
Which means no time to savor the success of the last two weeks, Cook said. Pressing on is the only option.
“It’s just one point at a time and one match at a time. Put our heads down and see where we come up.”
Michigan St. (11-3, 4-1 Big Ten)…….19 15 25 19
At Nebraska (12-3, 5-0)………………25 25 22 25
MSU (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Kranda 16-0-2, Bailey 11-0-2, Toliver 11-0-0, Garvelink 7-0-6, Tompkins 3-0-1, Minarick 2-0-1
NU: Albrecht 18-2-3, Stivrins 10-0-4, Sweet 10-0-1, Foecke 9-1-1, Holman 8-0-2, Hunter 2-0-5, Maloney 0-2-0
Set Assists: MSU 44 (Minarick 33, Midget 4, Cox 3, Bailey 1, Tompkins 1, Toliver 1, McLean 1), NU 54 (Hunter 45, Maloney 3, Foecke 2, Townsend 2, Albrecht 1, Densberger 1). Att: 8,406