Published Friday, December 7, 2012 at 12:01 am / Updated at 7:41 pm
VOLLEYBALL
NU takes on Oregon with Final Four trip on the line

Woe unto those who find themselves on the to-do list of the Nebraska volleyball team.

The Huskers have long memories, and on Friday, Gina Mancuso didn't let anyone forget it.

Washington became the latest team to get finished on the Huskers' “Unfinished Business” Tour, as fourth-seeded Nebraska handed the No. 13 seed Huskies their first sweep of the season in a 25-14, 25-21, 25-23 win at the CenturyLink Center in the NCAA regional semifinals.

The Huskers (26-6) moved to Saturday's 5:30 p.m. regional final against fifth-seeded Oregon, which beat BYU in four sets in Friday's first match.

Mancuso, Nebraska's senior outside hitter, fought off the attention of the nation's best blocking team for a match-high 14 kills. The Papillion-La Vista graduate had her share of struggles, getting stuffed five times by the Huskies' imposing block, but each swing was fueled by the two-year-old memory of Nebraska's narrow four-set loss to Washington in an NCAA regional semifinal in Seattle.

“I know I felt it,” Mancuso said. “For those of us that were there in 2010, that feeling was still there. We had a lot of motivation to come out and beat Washington. I think we played great, and I think our energy level was definitely there, and our confidence. The revenge definitely played into that.”

The Huskies shined above the net, finishing with 11 blocks. But Nebraska countered with a scrambling floor defense that held Washington to a .130 attack percentage and regularly extended rallies long enough for NU to find a way to win them.

Nebraska finished with 55 digs — 22 more than the Huskies — led by a virtuoso back-row performance from outside hitter Hannah Werth. The senior led all players with 22 digs to go along with nine kills.

“That's Hannah. Hannah thrives on playing defense,” NU coach John Cook said. “She's gotten a lot better at reading. She's so athletic, she can cover a lot of court back there.”

Washington coach Jim McLaughlin lamented he may not have had his team prepared to match the energy level of the Huskers, who were boosted by a partisan crowd of 8,954, and the Huskies appeared a step slow well into the match.

Photo showcase: Nebraska vs. Washington

Washington (25-7) led the nation with 3.36 blocks per game coming into the match, but it was an NU block party in the opener with middle blocker Meghan Haggerty as the master of ceremonies. The freshman had four stuffs to go along with three kills as the Huskers hit .345 and rolled in Game 1.

“The environment was outstanding. The environment was incredible,” McLaughlin said. “It took us awhile to start getting our feet under us a little bit.”

The Washington block finally showed up in Game 2, but six stuffs from the Huskies weren't enough to keep Nebraska from taking a 2-0 lead into the intermission. The Huskers led 19-13 when Washington won four straight rallies — two of them on blocks — to make it 19-17. But two Mancuso kills started a 5-1 run to let Nebraska pull away.

The Huskies had 3-1/2 more blocks in Game 3 en route to a 16-12 lead, but NU began to adjust back to its game plan of setting the ball off the net to avoid having to swing directly into Washington defenders. Mancuso found the floor through the double block and tooled another Washington blocker with a roll shot to lead a 9-2 Husker run that put them on top 21-18.

“We started passing the ball, and once we do that, that opens up everything,” said NU opposite hitter Morgan Broekhuis, whose nine kills came against one error. “Our hitters, we started making better decisions. Our floor defense, we started digging, and when you do that, it puts doubts in their heads and gives us momentum as well.”

With the set tied at 22, Mancuso pounded another kill, and a Washington net violation gave NU a pair of match points. Washington fought off the first with one of Krista Vansant's team-high 11 kills, but then Broekhuis delivered her final kill to put Nebraska one win away from its first final four since 2008.

Standing in the way is Oregon (28-4), which is seeking its first trip to the final four and boasts perhaps the country's top offense. The Ducks, led by Pac-12 player of the year Alaina Bergsma, average a nation-best 15.94 kills per set.

Four Oregon players had at least 12 kills Friday, led by 26 from Liz Brenner.

McLaughlin, whose Huskies split a pair of matches with Oregon this year, said Saturday's regional final will be “a dogfight.”

“They've very, very different teams,” McLaughlin said. “One runs a lot of motion offense. One is pretty direct. They both dig the ball very well. I think it's going to come down to serve and pass. If Nebraska serves like they did tonight, maybe they have a little bit of an advantage.”

Both teams have one giant piece of unfinished business that only one can put a check mark by Saturday night.

“This time of year, your energy, your willpower. There's no tomorrow,” Cook said. “It doesn't matter how tired you are, you're going to have to will it out. That's where that crowd will help, and we're going to find out what team wants it the most.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1201, jpsheldo@gmail.com; twitter.com/OWHJeffSheldon

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