LINCOLN — The historic NU Coliseum has seen volleyball All-Americans, national championship teams and winning streaks that exceeded the length of presidential administrations.
And sometimes, players and coaches swear, the old building itself can swing a match.
It was in this building, soon to be vacated when the Huskers move to the Devaney Center next season, where the walls shook again Saturday night — from hardwood floor to barrel-curved roof — when No. 4 Nebraska survived what would have been a historic collapse against the top-ranked team in the country.
Nebraska let a two-set lead slip away and trailed defending national champion UCLA 4-0 in the fifth before coming back for a breathless 25-20, 25-23, 23-25, 19-25, 15-13 win. A sellout crowd of 4,186 fans witnessed another chapter in the Coliseum's legacy, this one featuring Morgan Broekhuis' short memory, freshman Meghan Haggerty's coming-out party and stakes about as high as you can get on the first weekend of the season.
Haggerty, playing in just her second collegiate match, led the Huskers with 17 kills and hit .600. Gina Mancuso and Broekhuis each put down 15 kills, and Hannah Werth added 12 to help overcome a tour-de-force performance from UCLA's Tabi Love, who led all players with 20 kills.
“Being the last season in the Coliseum, every match here is one we need to cherish,” Mancuso said. “That was a great way to start off in the opening weekend. It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of nerves, but like I said, we were in the locker room and we were so emotional because it was a great, solid team effort tonight. It was so special.”
It was also so close to being a heartbreaking disappointment. Nebraska had not lost a match at home after leading 2-0 in sets since Oct. 15, 2003, when Missouri rallied to win in five. The Huskers took the first set 25-20 saturday night and rallied from a 19-13 deficit behind six kills from Mancuso to take the second 25-23, putting the defending national champions in a 0-2 hole.
But UCLA coach Michael Sealy's message during the intermission provided his team with a chance to prove it could channel adversity into resiliency.
“If we don't learn to battle in the situation, coming to Nebraska was a failure,” Sealy said. “If we learn to be disappointed, then coming to Nebraska was a success.”
Love, the Bruins' senior outside hitter, was listening. She took over the UCLA offense as the Bruins' All-American Rachael Kidder was stymied by the Husker block. Love pounded seven kills in Set 3, including one out of the back row to break a 23-23 tie. She followed with a block of Broekhuis to give UCLA the set and keep the Bruins alive.
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Love added six more kills in Set 4 as Kidder finally came to life with four of her 14 kills to knot the match at two sets apiece.
“(Love) was really good tonight,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “She was really good last night, too. They've got a great role for her, and she does it really well. Sometimes, you get into a Game 5 and we got her there at the end.”
It was Broekhuis, specifically, who did the getting, making up for a forgettable start to the match by being the savior of Set 5. The junior opposite hitter from Colorado Springs, Colo., began the match with three errors and no kills in her first 10 swings, but put down five kills in the fifth set and had a hand in each point of Nebraska's match-ending 5-0 run.
The Bruins took the first four points of the decisive set, but then Werth got going with four kills. Her last pulled Nebraska within one at 11-10 and was followed by a decisive kill from Broekhuis to tie the set 11-11.
UCLA led 13-11 when Broekhuis combined with Hayley Thramer to stuff Love, and NU tied the match 13-13 with a kill on the next rally. Broekhuis teamed up with Haggerty to block Love again on the next play to give NU match point at 14-13.
On the final rally, Broekhuis found herself matched up one-on-one with a Bruin defender. the 6-5 left-hander fired the ball off a UCLA dig attempt and it sailed back over to the Huskers' side of the net and fell safely out of bounds, sending the Coliseum into bedlam.
Did Cook think Broekhuis was capable of rebounding from her pedestrian start?
“I don't think she had a choice. She knew what was on the line,” Cook said. “They were one-on-one with her, so that was our game plan to get her the ball, especially in the second half of that Game 5 when she was in the front row. She didn't have a choice. She came up with some big plays.”
Broekhuis' finish overshadowed, at least in part, a brilliant match by Haggerty. The freshman from Lisle, Ill., who joined the program just two months before the start of fall practice, had four kills against Saint Louis on Friday, but matched that total on her first five swings against the Bruins.
“Last night, I got the crowd under my belt for the first time. That was the biggest crowd I ever played in,” Haggerty said. “Tonight, I didn't really let that affect me. We just played our game.”
Near the end of the fourth, the Huskers looked noticeably fatigued. Their passes weren't always on-target, a serve was shanked and attacks were fired right into a UCLA defense that out-blocked Nebraska 15-10.
As the Huskers went back to the sideline before the start of Game 5, Cook told them to keep hitting with confidence. Don't adjust your approach because of the block. Trust it. Trust each other.
The Huskers hit .333 and were blocked just once in the fifth set as the walls of the Coliseum absorbed another piece of history.
“I think it just came to a point of realization for each one of us that our whole theme this year is ‘Unfinished Business,' and this was something that was getting in the way,” Mancuso said. “I think it finally, unfortunately a little late, it clicked. We had to step up.”
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