LINCOLN — Nebraska and Minnesota played 205 rallies in Sunday's five-set thriller won by the Huskers, but NU swung the momentum by winning three crucial rallies to end the third set.
Two Huskers who have endured some recent struggles found themselves right in the middle of the action — freshman libero Justine Wong-Orantes and sophomore middle blocker Meghan Haggerty.
Wong-Orantes foiled a pair of chances for Minnesota to go up 2-1 in sets when the Gophers led 25-24.
After the Gophers dug an attack by Haggerty, Daly Santana, Minnesota's explosive sophomore outside hitter, had an in-system swing to close out the set. Santana's cross-court laser went right at Wong-Orantes, who was knocked head-over-heels backward by the shot, but the Huskers kept the ball in play.
“That was a crazy play,” Wong-Orantes said. “They were swinging for game point. I dug it, and I'm pretty sure it went past the pole, and Amber (Rolfzen) went to pursue it. I was trying to make a floor move, and I'm rolling, and all of a sudden it's coming back to me.”
Rolfzen chased down the second touch, and Wong-Orantes sent a free ball back to the Gophers for another golden chance to win Game 3. Setter Alexandra Palmer set the ball to right-side hitter Adrianna Nora, who at that point had been unstoppable with 15 kills.
But instead of taking a full swing, Nora tried a deceptive tip. Wong-Orantes, who had been burned by a Nora tip while playing too deep two rallies earlier, had cheated forward and made an easy save. The Huskers converted the gift into a kill by Kelsey Robinson to tie the set 25-25.
Nebraska coach John Cook said Wong-Orantes had her best defensive match of the season against Minnesota with a career-high 24 digs. It came only eight days after Cook benched the freshman against Northwestern. The coach said Wong-Orantes showed renewed energy in practice last week and earned her way back into the starting lineup.
“Butt-on-bench sends a message to the brain: Get the butt off the bench,” Cook said. “That's from Bobby Knight.”
On the next rally, the Gophers again set Santana, but Palmer crossed in front of her attacker after the set, which prevented Santana from taking a full approach. The Minnesota sophomore was forced to two-hand a free ball back to Nebraska, but the ball barely cleared the net.
Haggerty, reacting quickly, redirected the ball past an unprepared Minnesota defense to a wide-open spot in the deep corner to put Nebraska ahead 26-25.
Kadie Rolfzen capped NU's comeback on the ensuing rally. The Gophers took the serve and fed Nora, but Rolfzen was there for a block that gave Nebraska the 27-25 win. It was the first time Nora had been blocked all match.
With Nora finding success hitting over Robinson, Cook started matching up Rolfzen on the big-swinging Nora in Game 3, and the NU freshman's block may have broken Nora's spell over the Huskers. She had only three kills the rest of the match, and none in Game 5, where she committed two attack errors as well as a service miscue.
“It was great because the whole night she was kind of beating us, and we got one block I think, maybe two on her the whole night,” Rolfzen said. “But we got it when it mattered.”
Huskers earn Big Ten honors
For the second straight week and third time this season, Robinson was named Big Ten player of the week. The senior outside hitter continued a year that likely will result in All-America honors as she led Nebraska to two road wins over top-20 teams.
She had double-doubles against Wisconsin (21 kills, 13 digs) and Minnesota (23 kills, 19 digs) this weekend.
Mary Pollmiller earned the weekly honor for the league's top setter for the third time after averaging 12.3 assists per set in the two victories. Pollmiller leads the Big Ten with 11.16 assists per set in conference matches.
Nebraska back in AVCA top 10
Nebraska jumped two spots to No. 9 in this week's coaches poll after its road wins at Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Huskers are one of seven Big Ten teams in the rankings this week.
The top eight teams remain unchanged from last week, with a top five of Texas, Penn State, Washington, Southern Cal and Florida.
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Video: Nebraska coach John Cook: