LINCOLN — Four hours after Nebraska football fans witnessed a last-second win over Northwestern, many fans who trickled over to the Devaney Center saw another white-knuckle finish against the Wildcats.
No. 11 Nebraska, playing far from its sharpest match of the season, survived for a 21-25, 25-17, 21-25, 25-17, 15-13 win over unranked Northwestern in front of a crowd of 8,123 fans.
“In between Games 2 and 3, I was resigned to the fact that I told the girls, 'Here are the adjustments, and I guess it's going to be just like football,'” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “It ended up being just like football, except we had a lead at the end and squeaked it out.”
Kelsey Robinson had five of her match-high 21 kills in the decisive fifth set and added 16 digs for another double-double, her 12th of the year.
But as Northwestern mounted a fifth-set comeback, it appeared Robinson might not be in a position to save the match for the Huskers. The Wildcats ran off four consecutive points with Robinson in a back-row rotation to tie the set 12-12.
A kill by Amber Rolfzen broke the string to give Nebraska a 13-12 lead and moved Robinson to the front, where she ended the match with the Huskers' final two kills.
“As an outside, you want those swings,” Robinson said. “You want to be swinging when it's game point. I told (setter) Mary (Pollmiller), 'Set me as many times as you can.'”
The attack for Nebraska (17-4, 10-2 Big Ten) misfired for much of the night — the Huskers' .233 hitting percentage was their lowest in conference play. The Huskers struggled passing much of the night and attacks that seemed to land just inside the line all year were suddenly traveling out of bounds.
“We just were way out of sync,” Cook said. “Sometimes it goes that way, and you've got to keep playing through it and find a way to pull it out and get a rhythm going. In Games 4 and 5, we got a little rhythm going.”
NU made up for the lacking offense by tying a season high with 18 blocks. After setting her career high with 11 blocks in Wednesday's win over Illinois, Cecilia Hall had 10 stuffs Saturday.
Sophomore middle blocker Meghan Haggerty didn't start the match for just the third time all year, but she made the most of her appearance with eight blocks, including three stuffs in the fifth set.
“I had an advantage because I was seeing it from a different angle on the sidelines,” said Haggerty, who replaced freshman Melanie Keil midway through the second set. “It helped me visualize where I needed to be, so when I did go in I was able to make the adjustments to the block.”
While Robinson's swings punctuated the comeback in the finale, freshman outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen propelled the Huskers in the fourth set with six of her 18 kills. Rolfzen led the Huskers with 17 digs to join Robinson with a double-double.
Opposite hitter Amber Rolfzen also had an efficient night with 11 kills on 25 swings to finish hitting .320.
All-Big Ten outside hitter Stephanie Holthus, who entered the match fourth in the conference in kills, led Northwestern (14-10, 6-6) with 17 kills and 12 digs.
Freshman outside hitter Kayla Morin dealt Nebraska fits in the early going with 10 of her 12 kills coming in the first two sets.
The Wildcats kept the Huskers' defense off-balance early by tooling the block, aiming attacks to glance high off the hands of NU's blockers, but Nebraska shifted its defense to take away Northwestern's attacks down the line.
Cook said the Huskers' serving was “pathetic” in Games 1 and 2, failing to get the Wildcats out of system. But as the match wore on, several Huskers got hot from the service line. NU finished with only three aces and 11 errors, but many of Nebraska's blocks came on predictable swings that resulted from poor passes.
“We started stressing them,” Cook said. “Kelsey got a big run, Brenna (Lyles) got a big run, Kadie and Amber had big runs in Games 3, 4, and 5.”
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Video: Highlights from the Nebraska-Northwestern match: