LINCOLN — When the final serve sailed long and Nebraska's comeback turned from unlikely possibility to unbelievable reality, Hannah Werth found herself without a voice to scream.
Gina Mancuso found herself with no one to tackle. Coach John Cook found himself with barely a thought to do it all justice.
In a match that seemed all but lost at several points, the Huskers found themselves in time to add another chapter to the Nebraska-Penn State volleyball rivalry, coming back for a 12-25, 32-30, 19-25, 25-23, 15-10 win Sunday at the NU Coliseum.
The Huskers (18-3, 10-2 Big Ten) kept themselves in the Big Ten title race by treating an ear-splitting, sellout crowd of 4,193 to another Coliseum classic.
They rallied from decisive losses in Games 1 and 3 and an eight-point deficit in Game 2, always finding an answer when it looked like Penn State's dizzying lineup of stars seemed set to deliver a knockout blow.
“It felt like the whole crowd was one voice,” said a drained, red-faced Werth outside the locker room. “I'm exhausted. I don't even know where I am right now.”
Werth seemed to be everywhere at once, scrambling for a career-high 27 digs, with many coming on rocket shots from All-America outside hitters Deja McClendon and Ariel Scott. The two Nittany Lions combined for 39 kills, but withered late as the Huskers rode the wave of a crowd that never let them falter in a match they won despite recording 11 fewer kills and three fewer blocks while hitting 66 points lower than Penn State.
“The Coliseum was so loud,” Cook said. “I don't know if you guys can feel it down there, but it feels like your eardrums are going to blow out. I don't know how these rock band guys do it.”
Werth also tallied 11 kills and was one of three Husker attackers with double-doubles. Mancuso led Nebraska with 16 kills and had 17 digs, while Morgan Broekhuis chipped in 13 kills and 13 digs for a team that took the floor looking like it still had a hangover from Friday's surprise loss to Ohio State.
Penn State dominated Game 1 with five blocks that stuffed Nebraska into a negative hitting percentage (minus-.103). The Nittany Lions ran off eight straight points and finished the set on a 12-2 run, sucking the air out of a crowd that was buzzing before the match.
“We were in a funk Friday, and we came out in a funk tonight,” Cook said. “But sometimes, like fighters, they've got to get hit a few times to wake up, and Penn State was punching us.”
One literal blow to the head of the coach's daughter, setter Lauren Cook, may have been what woke Nebraska up in the second set. With Penn State up 18-10, Nia Grant smacked a ball that ricocheted off Lauren Cook's face and popped into the air. The Huskers recovered and eventually won the rally on a kill by Broekhuis to start a 10-2 run that tied the set 20-20.
From there, the teams held a combined nine set points, with NU fighting off all three of Penn State's chances to take a 2-0 lead, but failing to convert its first five chances to even the match 1-1.
With Penn State up 30-29, Lauren Cook found the deep corner with a setter dump. Mancuso added another kill to put the Huskers on top 31-30. NU finally cashed in its sixth set point when Hayley Thramer and Broekhuis combined to stuff McClendon to send the teams into intermission tied.
“We had to take that and we had to go with it. Otherwise we wouldn't be sitting here right now,” Mancuso said. “Maybe we would with a different story. So when we felt that, you have to grab it and you have to take advantage of it.”
McClendon and Scott each had six kills in Game 3 as Penn State seemed to resume control, but Nebraska used an 8-1 run in Game 4 to erase a 15-11 deficit. NU sent the match to a fifth set when freshman Meghan Haggerty put down a kill after the Nittany Lions saved three set points. It was one of 12 kills for Haggerty to go along with a team-high seven blocks.
Penn State was visibly drained by the fifth set when the crowd was at its foundation-shaking finest. The Huskers broke a 6-6 tie by winning seven of the next nine rallies to go up 13-8 on a kill by Broekhuis. The Huskers then received their final two points when Penn State serves sailed long.
McClendon, who seemed unstoppable early, had one kill on seven attempts in the fifth set when the Nittany Lions hit .158 and left coach Russ Rose openly questioning whether the moment was too big for his team.
“Teams are what teams are,” Rose said. “If you're made up of a lot of veterans, and they're tough kids and they fight, then you go with what you got. If you've got some kids and they get a little rattled, they make mistakes, and they start looking at other people, I think that happened with a couple of our kids.”
Freshman Megan Courtney chipped in 11 kills and middle blocker Katie Slay had 10 kills and seven blocks for Penn State (21-2, 11-1), which saw its 15-match winning streak snapped.
After match point, it was hugs, smiles and more than a few tears for the Huskers, who gathered in a huddle on the court while the crowd remained for an ovation that lasted several minutes. John Cook said he had to politely find his way through mobs of well-wishers on his way to his postmatch radio interview, while Lauren Cook and Mancuso accepted kudos from fans all the way to their session with reporters.
But in between, the coach was able to pull aside his daughter for a quick word on the court after the team's huddle broke. Nebraska had just kept its dream of a Big Ten title alive by turning in an unforgettable victory, and John Cook wanted her to know the team could never have done it without her.
Said Lauren Cook: “He goes, 'When you got hit in the face, that was the turning point.' ”
Penn State (21-2, 11-1) .................. 25 30 25 23 10
At Nebraska (18-3, 10-2) .................. 12 32 19 25 15
PSU (kills-aces-blocks): McClendon 20-1-0, Scott 19-0-3, Courtney 11-0-3, Slay 10-0-7, Grant 8-0-5, Hancock 6-1-8. Totals 74-2-26.
NU: Mancuso 16-0-1, Broekhuis 13-1-2, Haggerty 12-0-7, Werth 11-1-3, Thramer 4-0-4, Cook 4-0-4, Fien 3-0-0, Dykstra 0-2-0. Totals 63-4-21.
Set assists: PSU 70 (Hancock 61, Slay 1, Courtney 1, McClendon 2, Gonzalez 4, Carpenter 1), NU 59 (Cook 52, Broekhuis 2, Haggerty 1, Werth 3, Dykstra 1).
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