MINNEAPOLIS — Embracing the point-by-point philosophy has guided the Nebraska volleyball team to its fourth consecutive final four.
The No. 6 Huskers shed shaky moments to win two close sets Saturday before finishing their match with No. 14 Oregon the Nebraska way to earn a 25-22, 25-23, 25-17 sweep of the Ducks on Saturday at the University of Minnesota’s Maturi Pavilion.
Nebraska will face a familiar foe Thursday in the national semifinals at the Target Center, which is 3.2 miles west of the place the Huskers won their 16th regional title. Big Ten rival Illinois, which is ranked No. 3, will face the Huskers at either at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
The Huskers and Fighting Illini split their two matches this season. Nebraska won 3-1 on Sept. 29 in Champaign while Illinois won 3-1 Oct. 27 in Lincoln — Nebraska’s last defeat before its current 12-match winning streak.
Senior Mikaela Foecke, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, led all players with 16 kills and hit .400. Sophomores Lauren Stivrins (11) and Lexi Sun (10) also finished in double figures.
Stivrins and freshman setter Nicklin Hames, who had 41 set assists, joined Foecke on the all-tournament team.
Nebraska coach John Cook has said throughout the Minneapolis Regional that he believes his Huskers are the most improved team in the country since the beginning of the season in late August.
A big reason is the way the 28-6 Huskers have handled, and won, close matches consistently since early November .
“I thought it was a really, really good win,” Cook said. “We were not real sharp, but Oregon’s a really good team offensively. I mean they were hitting huge numbers against us until the end there.
“When you don’t have a chance to prepare for it, it is very difficult to just jump in a match and play against. We started stressing them with our serve and found a way to win some close games and big points.”
Oregon had more success on offense in the first two sets than most of Nebraska’s opponents, hitting .294 in the first set and .316 in the second. Those strong hitting performances prevented the Huskers from going on long scoring stretches.
Nebraska scored three consecutive points just once in the first set victory and managed just one streak of three points and one of four in the second set. Set one was tied nine times and featured three lead changes, the last of those coming on an Oregon attack error that put the Huskers ahead 21-20.
Set two was a bit more dicey. Oregon made the Huskers look lost on defense at times while building a 12-7 lead.
Kills by Sun, freshman Callie Schwarzenbach and Foecke got Nebraska to back within three before the Ducks twice more moved their advantage to four points.
But an 18-14 deficit didn’t rattle the Huskers’ confidence.
“One of the things our team prides itself on is going point by point,” Stivrins said. “So no matter what happened the play before, we’re going to shake it off and we’re just going to focus on that next point.”
Nebraska scored four consecutive points to tie the game 18-18. The tying point came after a coaches challenge that Cook won when it was ruled that four Oregon players had touched the ball before sending it back to the Huskers.
The Huskers took their first lead at 20-19 on a service ace by Sun. The set was tied at 21, 22 and 23 before kills by Foecke and Stivrins secured the set.
“I just know that even if that ball didn’t go down that we were going to get that next point or even finish out that one,” Stivrins said. “Our team just worked so hard. I just didn’t see that game going in their favor at all. We finished out that set strong.”
Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said Foecke and Stivrins were players Oregon simply couldn’t match.
“Nebraska’s a great program,” Ulmer said. “I thought they played really clean tonight. I thought Mikaela Foecke and Lauren Stivrins were extra special and really difficult for us to stop.
“The Mikaela Foeckes of the world, there are not many. I mean, there’s a (Stanford junior) Kathryn Plummer in the back, and there’s a Mikaela Foecke in the big, and I think those are extra special players.”
Though the Huskers hit .400 and .359 in the first two sets, they saved their best overall set for last. They hit just .293 — Foecke led the way with six kills — but three blocks and two aces helped NU take the lead for good at 3-2 and grow that advantage to eight .
“I think we only had two blocks, and we got three blocks in that game,” Cook said. “We got touches, we got some digs, we got some easy tips out of it. We were able to disrupt their rhythm because they were humming.
“We were just trying to serve in there. We were trying to create some problems for them so they couldn’t get their big approaches.”
Ulmer said the plan worked.
“I was pleased with how we came out,” Ulmer said. “For 2½ sets I thought we were right there. Again, it could have gone either way. We could have lost to Minnesota the way we lost tonight. But we won those close ones last night, and tonight we didn’t.
“The margins are so small. That’s why the silly plays are the ones that are going to burn in our memories a little bit more because those are definitely controllable. Foecke is going to get hers, Stivrins is going to get hers. It’s that part of the year. You’ve got to suck it up, you’ve got to make those plays.”
Oregon (23-11) 22 23 17
Nebraska (28-6) 25 25 25
UO (kills-aces-blocks): Stone 9-0-1, Johnson 8-0-1, Borup 8-0-0, Vander Weide 7-1-1, Raskie 5-0-0, Page 4-0-1, Van Sickle 1-0-0. Totals: 42-1-4.
NU: Foecke 16-0-2, Stivrins 11-0-4, Sun 10-0-1, Sweet 5-0-2, Schwarzenbach 3-0-1, Davis 2-0-0, Hames 1-1-0, Miller 0-1-0, Densberger 0-1-0. Totals: 48-3-10.
Set assists: UO 40 (Raskie 33, Nuneviller 5, Borup 1, Van Sickle 1), NU 47 (Hames 41, Maloney 3, Miller 2, Sun 1).
T: 1:37. A: 4,806.
Husker notes: Nebraska fans make their presence felt as seniors’ four-year surge continues
MINNEAPOLIS — After Friday’s regional semifinal win over Kentucky, coach John Cook was curious to find out how full the 5,700-seat Maturi Pavilion might be for Saturday’s final after Oregon eliminated host Minnesota.
Nebraska fans made their presence known throughout the sweep of the Ducks that sent the Huskers to their fourth consecutive Final Four.
There were a few hundred Minnesota faithful who showed up to watch the match, but there were approximately 900 empty seats.
Cook said some fans were letting him know that they were making an early trip to Minneapolis, which is hosting the Final Four that begins Thursday, for the match against the Ducks.
“I was wondering today what the crowd would be like,” Cook said. “I got a lot of texts and emails from people saying ‘Hey, we’re coming up.’ So I had a feeling there would be a large contingency.
“There’s no place like Nebraska.”
Hugs for Huskers
Nebraska middle blocker Lauren Stivrins admitted after Saturday’s win that she’s not the hugging type.
The sophomore from Scottsdale, Arizona, was asked what the scene was like in the Husker locker room after they earned a chance to return the Final Four and defend the national championship they won last season in Kansas City.
“Just a lot of smiles, a lot of jokes, and a lot of hugs,” Stivrins said. “I’m not usually a person that likes hugs, but man, we were happy, and everyone was getting hugs.”
Seniors on four-year surge
At the end of his opening statement at the postgame press conference, Cook was effusive in his praise of senior co-captains Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney.
“Mikaela and Kenzie continue to raise a very high bar at Nebraska,” Cook said. “Four straight Final Fours now. It’s hard to put that into words how hard that is. It’s really hard to get to this point, to be playing next week.
“These guys deserve the credit, the leadership that they bring every day and how they work is really impressive.”
Cook also noted that the pair are 51-2 in November and December matches. Foecke and Maloney also are 20-1 in their NCAA tournament careers. Those 20 victories are the most in a four-year span in Nebraska history.
With her 16 kills against Oregon, Foecke moved into third place on the Huskers all-time kills list. Now with 1,638, Foecke moved past Lisa Reitsma (1,633). Foecke also is No. 2 on Nebraska’s NCAA tournament career kills list with 263, moving past Nancy (Meendering) Metcalf.
Big Ten bracket-buster
After alluding to how the NCAA tournament was seeded on his way out of Friday’s press conference, Cook was asked for his thoughts on how so many Big Ten teams ended up on one side of the bracket.
“When you have a conference that has five of the top teams, four of the Elite Eight and six in the Sweet 16, and they’re knocking each other off, it’s tough,” Cook said. “Wisconsin played Illinois today, and there was a good chance we would have been playing Minnesota today.
“The committee has to live with what they do, and they go about their business.”
Cook said if this had happened in another sport, there would be a bigger sense of outrage and more time spent on the topic.
“I have a feeling that if this was men’s basketball, sports talk would be going all daylong discussing all of this,” Cook said. “I think you’d see some coaches stepping up like if you had five ACC teams all knocking each other off.
“It’s a credit to our conference, this conference is really good. You’ve got to win matches to win it, but it’s just tough when Big Ten teams have to play each other a lot.”
Ducks out of water in 3rd
Oregon coach Matt Ulmer said his team got in its own way a bit in the third game, and that allowed the Huskers to have more success with their plays.
“We hit over .300 after the first two sets, .250 for the match, which I think against Nebraska is one of the higher offensive outputs against them,” Ulmer said. “I didn’t think our serving was as aggressive as it needed to be against them, and that definitely allowed them to get into a rhythm and that cost us.”
Nebraska spotted the lead when things started to change in Oregon’s approach, and was able to quickly make adjustments.
“We were trying to find different ways to score, and they were taking that away,” Ulmer said. “As opposed to staying really disciplined and doing what we do.”“That’s kind of been our M.O., when things go bad, we try to do too much, all season. At the end we tried to do too much with the ball, and they were a solid block. They weren’t having much success blocking us for the night.”
Semifinals: No. 6 Nebraska vs. No. 3 Illinois
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Target Center, Minneapolis, MN
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM