EVANSTON, Ill. — With three road matches in a six-day period, the Nebraska volleyball team has sore eyes for the sight of the Devaney Center. But after a 12th straight win, the Huskers might not be leaving their home court for awhile.
No. 5 Nebraska capped an unbeaten road trip by sweeping Northwestern 25-13, 25-20, 25-21 on Wednesday night in front of 1,007 fans at Evanston Township High School. It sends the Huskers back home with a chance to clinch at least a share of their second straight Big Ten championship against Iowa on Saturday night.
With a win in the regular season-finale, Nebraska would do no worse than share the conference crown with No. 1 Penn State. NU would be the outright champs if the Nittany Lions lost at either No. 12 Wisconsin on Friday or No. 8 Minnesota on Saturday.
Senior Annika Albrecht, playing in her home state of Illinois for the final time in her college career, led Nebraska (25-4, 18-1 Big Ten) with 10 kills to put NU a win away from a third conference title in seven seasons since joining the Big Ten.
Four other Huskers had at least six kills as NU hit .341, marking the sixth straight match Nebraska has hit at least .310.
“It was a weird match. Just choppy. Just a weird match,” Nebraska coach John Cook said in a post-match radio interview. “But we hit (.341). We had seven aces, eight errors. We didn’t play super clean volleyball, but we played enough. And give Northwestern credit. They competed really hard in Game 3 when they were down 0-2.”
Much of the Huskers’ offensive success came though middle blockers Briana Holman and Lauren Stivrins, who were near perfect, combining for 15 kills on 21 attempts with only two errors. The pair also had a hand in six of the Huskers’ eight blocks.
Northwestern (14-17, 4-15) dropped its fourth straight match, but was frisky despite its 6-5 lead in Game 2 being the latest point the Wildcats would lead in any set. Senior Symone Abbott, who came into the night third in the conference averaging 4.02 kills per set, put down a match-high 12 kills and hit .355.
Nebraska coach John Cook said Husker blockers never could get Abbott lined up just right, as the explosive Northwestern senior overpowered Nebraska at times with a sharp, cross-court shot.
“It’s just such a hard shot to defend, and she was hitting it really sharp,” Cook said. “We kept trying to make adjustments, and she just kept cutting it sharper. Hats off to her. She played a really nice match tonight.”
Northwestern kept it close into the late points of the second and third sets, but the Huskers managed to hit big serves in key moments. Albrecht landed her lone ace in a 5-1 run in Game 2 that extended Nebraska’s 19-17 lead. In the finale, Sydney Townsend and Hunter Atherton each had aces after the Wildcats pulled within 18-16.
In 10 Big Ten road matches this season, the Huskers lost only six sets. Cook said NU’s road success was a point of pride, dropping only one set in the recent three-match road swing.
“I told our team I’m really pleased with how the prepare,” Cook said, “how they go about their business, how they recover, how they come in to practice.
“I’m just really, really pleased with how they’ve been doing their business.”
One final bit of business remains on Saturday, when the team will recognize its five seniors — Albrecht, Holman, Townsend, Kelly Hunter, and Allie Havers — after the Iowa match, and, they hope, celebrate an unexpected conference title.
A Husker win would not only deliver the conference title, but also likely would nail down one of the four regional No. 1 seeds that would allow Nebraska to host NCAA tournament matches all the way to the final four in Kansas City, painting an inviting postseason scene.
Providing, Cook said, the Huskers can put the final touches in place on the court before stepping back to look at the big picture.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to win three games against Iowa. That’s all we’re focused on,” Cook said. “The Senior Night stuff can happen afterward. We’ve got to talk about how to manage that and not be a distraction because it’s a huge match Saturday night. Huge.”
No. 5 Nebraska (25-4, 18-1 Big Ten)…….25 25 25
At Northwestern (14-17, 4-15)……………13 20 21
NU (Kills-Aces-Blocks), Albrecht 10-1-3, Stivrins 8-0-4, Holman 7-0-2, Foecke 6-2-1, Sweet 6-0-3, Hunter 4-0-1, Maloney 0-2-0, Townsend 0-1-0, Atherton 0-1-0
NW, Abbott 12-0-0, Walker 6-0-0, Hazen 5-0-3, Robinson 5-0-0, Tashima 1-0-2, Viscuso 1-0-0, Lindroth 0-1-0, Williams 0-0-1
Set Assists: NU 39 (Hunter 32, Albrecht 4, Foecke 1, Townsend 1, Maloney 1), NW 29 (Tashima 26, Pitsas 2, Robinson 1)