EAST LANSING, Mich. — A senior captain was out injured. A top offensive weapon went to the bench, summing up a struggling offense. Inexperienced freshmen were taking big swings in big moments.
Yet, the Nebraska volleyball team still had a chance to steal a critical road win. In fact, the Huskers had four of them.
But Michigan State fought off all four match points and handed No. 4 Nebraska its second five-set loss in as many nights, dropping the Huskers 25-13, 23-25, 25-18, 23-25, 17-15.
The heartbreaker gave Nebraska (18-5, 10-4 Big Ten) back-to-back conference losses for the first time since September 2010. Nebraska coach John Cook said his club showed more fight than in Friday’s loss at Michigan in which the Huskers lost the final three sets after taking a 2-0 lead, but didn’t want his team too comforted by that silver lining.
“I hope they’re disappointed we didn’t win, but those were on our side of the net,” Cook said in his post-match radio interview. “We had chances to get it done, and we didn’t get it done. Michigan State found ways, they hit a couple shots and got easy kills. We needed one more point, and we didn’t find a way.”
Senior outside hitter Gina Mancuso led all players with 20 kills, including five in the fifth set when NU rallied from a 7-3 deficit and looked poised to escape with a win despite being outhit .283 to .188 and outblocked 14-9 in the match.
The Huskers scored four straight to take a 10-8 lead in the fifth, and then Mancuso and freshman Meghan Haggerty each put down a kill to give the Huskers a 14-11 lead and three chances to close out the match.
But the Spartans saved all three rallies. Nebraska was called for a ball-handling error, and then Mancuso was blocked by Michigan State’s Jazmine White and Amy Dentlinger to bring the Spartans within one. MSU’s Lauren Wicinski, the Big Ten leader in kills, capped the comeback by finding the floor on a roll shot to tie the set at 14.
Mancuso fired her fifth kill of the set to give the Huskers a fourth chance at the match leading 15-14, but Wicinski scored kills on the next two rallies and Mancuso was stuffed on an out-of-system swing to close out the Spartans’ win.
Wicinski led Michigan State (19-7, 7-7) with 19 kills. Taylor Galloway added 12 kills, while Dentlinger and Alexis Matthews each had 11 for the Spartans.
Nebraska went with a piecemeal lineup through much of the match, with senior Hannah Werth out with an ankle injury suffered in Friday’s loss at Michigan and junior opposite hitter Morgan Broekhuis battling through an off night with seven kills and five errors on 30 swings.
Freshman Kelsey Fien started in place of Werth and had her five kills offset by five errors. Her struggles led Cook to insert seldom-used redshirt freshman Alicia Ostrander, a walk-on outside hitter from Gordon, Neb. Ostrander had played in just six matches all season, but had five kills on seven swings Saturday.
“Alicia competed and got a couple big kills,” Cook said. “Kelsey never really adjusted, but she got a couple kills there at the end. They’ll get better for it. It was nice to see them come in and do something.
“That’s why I tell them, ‘It’s a team, and you never know when you’re going to get your shot.’ They competed.”
Cook also used freshman Alexa Strange in place of Broekhuis in Game 4 and Sheridan Zarda for what would have been Werth’s back-row rotations. In all, five true or redshirt freshmen saw time Saturday for the Huskers.
The loss leaves Nebraska in an undeniable funk with six matches left in the regular season. The Huskers are 1-3 since the start of the second half of Big Ten play and could easily be 0-4 if not for a comeback, five-set win over Penn State last Sunday.
Similar to last season, a promising start has given way to several questions as the schedule moves into November. Last year, the Huskers dropped four of their final seven matches and exited the NCAA tournament in the second round.
A year later, it seems many of the answers are still proving elusive to find.
“We’re learning from this weekend what has to happen,” Cook said. “Hopefully, we figure it out. We figure out who’s got to pass balls, who’s got to dig balls, who’s got to make kills, who’s got to compete. I think after Penn State, we just put it on cruise control, and this is the kind of weekend you get if you do that.”