LINCOLN — While Nebraska won’t be enjoying the comforts of home anymore in the quest to reach a third straight Final Four, the Huskers did everything they could to make their guests uncomfortable in the last home match of the season.
No. 5 seed Nebraska stifled Washington State with a serve, block and defensive showcase that tightened the screws on All-Pac-12 outside hitter Taylor Mims as NU cruised to a 25-13, 25-13, 25-18 win in the second round of the NCAA volleyball tournament Saturday night.
The Huskers advance to the Round of 16 on Friday in Lexington, Kentucky, where NU will face former conference rival Colorado after the Buffaloes swept No. 12 seed Baylor in Waco.
For a time Saturday, it seemed likely the Huskers would be able to turn the Devaney Center into the host site when No. 4 seed Kentucky lost the first two sets to Western Kentucky. But the Wildcats, coached by former NU assistant Craig Skinner, rallied for a five-set win to keep the road to the national semifinals going through the Bluegrass State. Kentucky will face No. 13 seed BYU in the other regional semifinal.
Nebraska (28-4) endured no such drama in clinching its sixth straight trip to the regional round. The Huskers outhit Washington State (18-16) .300-.033 and fired a series of bullet serves that funneled the scrambling Cougars’ shots into the Huskers’ block and defense.
Senior middle blocker Briana Holman had five of NU’s 10 blocks and led all players with 12 kills on .421 hitting in her final match at Devaney Center in front of 8,103.
“It’s been a long journey to get to this point, and I’m just super blessed with the opportunity to play at such an amazing university,” Holman said. “This means a lot to me. Having a good game my last game here means everything to me.”
After putting up nine aces in Friday’s first-round win against Stony Brook, the Huskers riddled Washington State for seven service winners. Freshman defensive specialist Hayley Densberger fired a pair of them, giving her four in her first two NCAA tournament matches.
“She had a hot serve,” NU coach John Cook said. “She ran a lot of points this weekend. I mean, a lot. We probably may have scored more points in her rotation than any other rotation except maybe Sydney’s (Townsend).”
Each of the Huskers’ servers ran long strings of points, keeping the Cougars out of system, where they often would turn to Mims to try to bail them out. The junior outside hitter had 28 kills Friday against Florida State but managed nine on 46 attacks Saturday, hitting .043.
“If we don’t get a good pass, then it’s pretty obvious where they’re going to go to, so they can set up faster,” Mims said. “We’re just very predictable when our pass isn’t on.”
Said Washington State coach Jen Greeny: “Tough to beat a very good team like Nebraska with not great passing.”
The Cougars managed 10 kills over the first two sets, which Nebraska won easily with the Huskers putting up six blocks in the second set.
Mims finally got going in the third set with five kills, and Washington State used a 3-0 run to close to 20-18 on Nicole Rigoni’s ace.
Out of a timeout, Husker setter Kelly Hunter went back to a middle attack that worked as well Saturday as it had all season. Redshirt freshman Lauren Stivrins fired a shot through a blocker’s hands, and two rallies later, Stivrins again scored running a slide in transition to put the Huskers up 23-18.
Stivrins and Holman combined for seven kills on 11 swings in the third set.
“Having a good middle attack just sets up everything else,” Hunter said. “We were passing great. We were handling those free balls, like Coach said, so it was really easy to get the middles going.”
Hunter had 35 assists in setting the Huskers to their 17th match of the year hitting .300 or better. It’s not a mark Cougar opponents are used to — Washington State came in holding opponents to .193 hitting for the season.
WSU libero Alexis Dirige credited Hunter for disguising where she was sending the ball until the last second, which sent Cougar blockers chasing after it. Washington State, which averages nearly three blocks per set, had two Saturday. The Cougars’ 25 digs were five fewer than they had in the first set alone against Florida State in the first round.
The win leaves Hunter and Holman undefeated at home during their senior season, which had slipped the Huskers’ attention until it was mentioned during a postgame press conference.
Looking beyond the next point is taboo to this year’s roster, so maybe it’s not a surprise the team also eschewed its traditional “victory lap” around the Devaney Center floor if it wins the final home match of the season. By the time someone brought up the possibility, Hunter said, the moment had passed.
The Huskers were already thinking about the next match, Lexington and the Round of 16.
“I think that we can go very far,” Holman said. “We’ve been playing at such a high level so we know what we’re capable of. We’re just trying to take it one point at a time, one set at a time, one match at a time, and I think we can go all the way.”
Digging Hunter’s performance
Kelly Hunter’s final home match of her college career was one of her finer efforts of the season.
The senior from Papillion-La Vista South directed an offense that had four players with at least seven kills.
Washington State recorded two blocks a night after the Cougars had 16 in a four-set win over Florida State in the first round.
Much of that credit is due Hunter, who put NU hitters in favorable one-on-one matchups throughout the night, which sent Washington State libero Alexis Dirige scrambling for the right word to credit the Husker setter.
“Universality?” Dirge said before settling on “Universalness.”
“The block was held a lot of times, so it was hard to dig behind that, I think. Hard to defend overall.”
Nebraska nearly doubled up the Cougars in digs 49-25.
Containing Cougars hitter
Washington State outside hitter Taylor Mims has a new fan in Nebraska coach John Cook, who said he was impressed with the All-Pac-12 pick who had a career-high 28 kills in the Cougars’ opening-round win over Florida State.
“She’s a really crafty hitter,” Cook said. “She has a lot of shots.”
But the Huskers never let Mims take over the match Saturday, holding her to nine kills. She came into the tournament fifth in the Pac-12 averaging 4.20 kills per set.
Mims had four kills on 31 attacks through the first two sets before notching five kills in the third set.
“I just think we frustrated her. She was really pressing trying to get kills,” the Nebraska coach said. “She got a couple nice kills in Game 3, but we took away her shots, and we were touching her on the block. Then, we were digging her. I’m not sure she’s felt that against many teams.”
No problem from start
One of the few blemishes Nebraska had this season was a penchant for slow starts, but the Huskers patched that up on the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.
The only time Nebraska trailed this weekend was when Washington State won the first point of the second set Saturday, and the Huskers erased that deficit by scoring the next six points.
Nebraska had serving runs of three points or more near the beginning of each of the six sets it played this weekend to grab early leads, which Hunter said put pressure on the opponent.
“I think we started with a lot of energy, and we came out strong, and we took control of the matches right away,” she said. “That’s something we haven’t really done all season. We’ve kind of let the other team start out strong.
“I think it was really important for us to just kind of have the energy and play together as a unit because it felt like we were a great team out there.”
Familiar foe up next
Colorado, Nebraska’s next opponent, may be a name familiar to Husker fans, but this year’s Buffaloes won’t be that familiar on the court.
Nebraska hasn’t played its former Big Eight and Big 12 rival since 2010, the Huskers’ final season in the Big 12. Nebraska leads the all-time series over the Buffaloes 49-7.
The Buffaloes reached their first Round of 16 since 1997 by sweeping No. 12 seed Baylor on Saturday night. Colorado was 24-9 in the regular season and finished fifth in the Pac-12.
In the other regional semifinal, No. 4 seed Kentucky will play No. 13 seed BYU. The Huskers swept BYU in the 2015 regional semifinal, also played in Lexington, en route to the 2015 NCAA title.
The Huskers are 7-2 all time against Kentucky with the last meeting coming in 2012.
Washington State (18-16) … 13 13 18
At Nebraska (28-4) ………….. 25 25 25
WSU (kills-aces-blocks): Mims 9-0-0, Urias 5-0-0, Martin 3-0-2, Lajos 2-0-1, Smith 1-0-0, Rigoni 0-1-0, Brown 0-0-1. Totals 20-1-4.
NU: Holman 12-0-5, Albrecht 9-1-1, Stivrins 8-0-2, Foecke 7-2-4, Sweet 5-0-1, Hunter 3-1-3, Densberger 0-2-0, Townsend 0-1-0. Totals 44-7-16.
Set assists: WSU 19 (Brown 19), NU 39 (Hunter 35, Maloney 3, Townsend 1). Attendance: 8,103
Spartans’ four-set victory at NCAA tournament ends Creighton’s season
Battled-tested Michigan State was strutting around the court, hollering and clapping as Creighton tried to regroup in its suddenly silent home gym.
It wasn’t the scene the Bluejays envisioned Saturday night.
CU, the No. 9 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, put up a fight — mustering moments of brilliance to temporarily energize a crowd of 2,415 and showcase why its lofty goals were attainable this season. But a team that spent much of the year ranked in the top 10 elevated its precision and raised its intensity at the right time, unfazed by the moment, the opponent or the atmosphere.
The Spartans spoiled the party in Omaha by earning a 25-23, 19-25, 25-20, 25-16 victory, advancing to the Round of 16 and ending the Jays’ season with a late-match flurry of thunderous kills, big-time blocks and screaming serves.