LEXINGTON, Ky. — It was happening again.
Like Kentucky’s two previous opponents in the NCAA tournament, No. 5 seed Nebraska had dug UK into another hole, and in front of a frenzied, blue-shirted home crowd, the big-hitting Wildcats were clawing their way out in their program’s biggest match ever.
But Nebraska was constructed for tough things, too, Kelly Hunter will remind you. “With each other, for each other” is a promise that everyone pulls on the same rope. And when it felt as if Nebraska was about to see a signature accomplishment yanked away on Saturday, the Huskers seized it back.
A season first thought to be a rebuilding year will end at the final four in Kansas City after NU outwilled No. 4 seed Kentucky 25-19, 25-22, 25-27, 25-22 in a regional final that gave the Huskers a résumé line unmatched in program history. They will be the first NU team ever to play in three straight final fours.
In Kansas City, Nebraska will have a rematch with Penn State in the national semifinals on Thursday after the No. 1 Nittany Lions swept Michigan State in another regional final. The Huskers are the only team to beat Penn State (33-1) this season, sweeping PSU Sept. 22 in University Park, Pennsylvania.
“I think we’ve known who we are all year, and this game kind of confirmed that for us,” Hunter said. “We know that we’re a team that can go all the way and get things done.”
With several chances to detour Nebraska (30-4) from that historic course, Kentucky (29-4) found a dead end late in Game 4 after chipping away at a Husker lead for the second set in a row. Kentucky spent much of the set trying to erase Nebraska’s early three-point lead, and the Wildcats finally evened it at 19-19 when Emily Franklin and Avery Skinner teamed up to block NU’s Jazz Sweet.
The Huskers answered with another booming kill from Mikaela Foecke, whose team-high 18 kills helped Nebraska go stride-for-stride as the second half of the match turned into a battle of side outs.
“I think every day you just go out there and you try to do your best for your teammates,” said Foecke, who was named the regional’s most outstanding player. “Obviously we want to succeed and we want to make it to a final four and we want to win a national championship ultimately.”
NU extended the lead to two on the next rally when Sweet and Briana Holman combined to block Skinner, and after the teams traded kills on the next two rallies, it was Sweet who came up with the play of the match against Skinner, her fellow freshman.
Dealt a tight set, Skinner (no relation to UK head coach Craig Skinner) tried to hit a sharp, cross-court shot, but Sweet was ready. The Husker freshman rose and sent the shot back to Kentucky’s shoe tops, putting Nebraska in front 23-20.
“I just saw her coming in, and I figured she was going to hit her tendency because it was a tight point,” Sweet said, “so I just went with what they trained us on and took her shot.”
Sweet added her 11th kill to give Nebraska three match points, and after the Wildcats saved the first, Kentucky libero Ashley Dusek committed her fourth service error of the day — her team’s 12th — to start the Huskers’ celebration in front of 4,464 fans at Memorial Coliseum.
“We had to dig as deep tonight as we ever have all season,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “But this team is also led by a setter who is now putting herself in an elite category. Three straight final fours for Kelly leading this group and this team. That’s never been done before at Nebraska, and that’s a pretty major accomplishment.”
Said Craig Skinner, a former Nebraska assistant: “As a competitor, you want to be mad because you just lost a competition, but I can’t find any reason to be mad. I’m just really proud to have been able to coach this team, and they did everything right.”
Indeed, Kentucky shook off the passing jitters that helped Nebraska take a 2-0 lead. The Wildcats boasted the country’s No. 4 hitting percentage this season (.321), and after the intermission, Kentucky finally warmed up behind dynamic sophomore outside hitter Leah Edmond.
Edmond’s 20 kills led all players, and she had five on just six swings in the third set to help the Wildcats fight off three Nebraska match points. NU led 25-24 after Hunter found the deep corner on a tip, but an Edmond kill started a 3-0 run capped by Brooke Morgan’s block of Foecke to give Kentucky the third set.
After the intermission, Kentucky’s offense had found its rhythm with steady passing for the Wildcats’ exceptional freshman setter, Madison Lilley, who had 52 assists. Franklin and Kaz Brown each had 11 kills, and Avery Skinner added 10 as UK sided out at 72 percent over the third and fourth sets.
That would be a number good enough to beat most teams in the country, Craig Skinner said, but the Huskers matched Kentucky swing for swing, siding out at 73 percent over Games 3 and 4. Annika Albrecht had 14 kills, and Sweet and Holman each added 11 to ensure the Wildcats had to play flawlessly just to stay in the match.
“It just feels like you’re running, running, running, but kind of staying in the same spot,” said Kentucky’s Brown.
“They’re definitely one of the most physical teams that we’ve played all season,” Holman said. “I think that they’re up there with the Texas or Purdue-type physicality.”
Hunter, who added a third straight final four to a career of accomplishments that include two Big Ten titles and the 2015 NCAA championship, said the foundation the team built during the summer, when it discussed how it could thrive despite losing four senior starters from last season, was sturdy enough to withstand the stress of a regional final on the road.
“I think this year, on paper, we might not be the most talented,” said Hunter, who had 46 assists and 11 digs Saturday, “but I think we have a lot of great talent and a lot of great hitters, but we have that team chemistry that really brings us to another level.”
It’s what reduced Cook to tears in the locker room, Sweet said. Minutes earlier, the coach stopped on his walk off the court to be wrapped in a hug by his daughter Lauren, a former Husker All-American and an analyst on the team’s radio broadcast.
He said he didn’t remember the words the two exchanged, but allowed that if anyone would understand the magnitude of reaching three straight final fours, it would be Lauren Cook, who played on three NU teams that fell short of the season’s final weekend.
Into the locker room the coach went, trying to think of a message to match the moment. Could he recall his words to a group that wasn’t expected to make history, but wrote it all the same?
“Yeah, I said a lot of things,” he said.
Seated adjacent, Hunter, Holman, and Foecke laughed. It was a joke they all were in on.
The final words from Lexington were said with each other. But they would stay for each other.
No. 5 Nebraska (30-4)……….25 25 25 25
At No. 4 Kentucky (29-4)……19 22 27 22
N (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Foecke 18-0-3, Albrecht 14-1-3, Holman 11-0-6, Sweet 11-0-4, Stivrins 5-0-5, Hunter 2-2-2, Maloney 0-2-0
K: Edmond 20-0-3, Franklin 11-0-5, Brown 11-0-5, Skinner 10-0-2, Morgan 7-0-4, Lilley 1-0-2, Watson 0-1-0
Set Assists: N 52 (Hunter 46, Maloney 4, Townsend 1, Stivrins 1), K 54 (Lilley 52, Edmond 1, Dusek 1)