LINCOLN — Maybe the biggest attribute of this year's Nebraska volleyball team is not the ability to deliver a blow, but to absorb one.
After already taking one haymaker this week with the news of starting setter Lauren Cook's suspension, No. 23 Michigan had the second-ranked Huskers on the ropes again Friday night before Nebraska did what it has already done so many times this season.
The Huskers fought back.
Gina Mancuso had 16 kills, senior setter Brigette Root had 35 set assists in her first start, and NU delivered its own knockout blow at the net with a season-high 18 blocks to hold off Michigan 17-25, 26-24, 25-20, 25-21 in front of a crowd of 4,156 at the NU Coliseum.
It was a match Nebraska (19-2, 12-1 Big Ten) found a way to win despite racking up 18 fewer kills and getting 24 fewer digs than Michigan (16-9, 4-9). The Huskers hit just .189 — their second-lowest mark of the season — and put just one player in double figures in kills while the Wolverines had four.
“I’d have to go back on the tape to look how we did that,” NU coach John Cook said. “Sometimes it’s a funny game and the stats don’t make sense.”
Seven Huskers were credited with at least one block, led by seven stuffs apiece for senior Brooke Delano and sophomore Hayley Thramer. Delano added eight kills, and Morgan Broekhuis had nine for Nebraska, which maintained its position at the top of the Big Ten standings heading into Saturday night’s match against Michigan State.
Michigan senior Alex Hunt, who missed the Huskers’ sweep in Ann Arbor on Oct. 1 with a shoulder injury, led all players with 22 kills and hit .353 while adding 15 digs. Courtney Fletcher had 17 kills, Lexi Erwin added 11, and Claire McElheny put down 10, but the Wolverines were undone by 38 attack errors and their inability to capture one gigantic point in the second set.
Already up a set, the Wolverines won three straight rallies to earn a set point leading 24-23 in the second. Michigan nearly went into the locker room up two sets to none when Hunt’s serve came within an eyelash of hitting the floor for an ace.
But Root chased down the first touch and sent a hopeful ball back over her shoulder to Broekhuis, whose swing found the deep corner to tie the game 24-24.
“I think it was a huge trust factor,” Root said. “That was obviously a big point for them to go up 2-0, but we just had to do what we had to do and everyone in that rally just did a nice job of trusting our skills and trusting each other, and it fell for us.”
The rattled Wolverines committed attack errors on the next two rallies to give Nebraska the set and send the teams tied 1-1 into the intermission.
The Huskers controlled Game 3, outhitting the Wolverines .312-.147. Mancuso had five kills in the rally while Root added two more, catching Michigan napping with a pair of setter dumps.
Root finished with five kills, four of them off misdirection plays, and added 11 digs. Wearing the No. 3, she was announced first in the Huskers’ starting lineup and earned the loudest ovation during the team’s introduction.
“I thought Brigette, for as big a match as this is, just competed and did a great job,” John Cook said. “She competed and found ways to help our team with setting, defense, blocking, attacking. She did a great job. When she made a mistake she worked right through it. It didn’t faze her. It didn’t bother her.”
Michigan outhit the Huskers .316-.119 to begin the match as NU rarely challenged in the opener. The Wolverines took the game’s final five rallies to hand the Huskers a Game 1 loss for the fourth straight match.
“In that first game they played great defense,” Mancuso said. “They got every ball. But I think we came out soft, not aggressive like we usually are. It was an adjustment we had to make, and from there it evened out.”
But the Huskers began to settle in, carried along by a crowd that seemed to sense all night when NU needed to be picked up.
The Huskers hit .195 or less in three of the four games Friday, as the offense took some time to find a rhythm in the first match with Root at the helm. But when Thramer’s match-point kill put an exclamation point on the win, most of the crowd remained to give the team a final ovation.
They had just seen their team get up off the mat again.
“The crowd was huge tonight,” Cook said. “I don’t know if I can put a point value on how many points they were worth tonight, but the crowd was huge. Our team got on a ride with them and they were carrying us.”
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