LINCOLN — The Nebraska volleyball team was on its heels.
The Huskers had nearly surrendered their five-point lead in the fifth set against Penn State, and clung to a 10-9 advantage after three straight blocks.
No one would have blamed the Huskers for wilting against the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions. Not after the week they’ve had.
Yet, on the next two rallies, Lexi Sun and Callie Schwarzenbach teamed up for back-to-back blocks to stall the Nittany Lions comeback. Lexi Sun tooled a block down the line. Jazz Sweet slammed home a kill before Madi Kubik sent the crowd of 8,373 home as the Huskers emerged with a 25-18, 18-25, 25-21, 21-25, 15-13 Saturday night at the Devaney Center.
“I think this team is a lot stronger than we realized in the beginning of the season,” junior captain Lauren Stivrins said. “We are young, but we’ve gone through so much recently and to go out there and play the way we did tonight, I’m really proud of them.”
The result was another classic chapter in the NU-Penn State rivalry. In the last 10 meetings, seven have gone five sets, including the last four, with the Huskers improving to 9-1 in that stretch.
On Friday night against Rutgers, NU was more emotional as they dealt with the death of graduate manager Dane Leclair, who died on Sunday.
Against Penn State, Cook said he saw more trust between the players. Before the match, NU coach John Cook said he didn’t talk about any game plan or tactics for the match but told the Huskers to focus on playing with their hearts and for each other.
“That really helps get through this week,” Cook said. “I got to be proud of them this week. It was a tough week. I am exhausted from everything that’s happened. I know emotionally they are drained. I told them they can do amazing things if they really dig down and they did.”
The Huskers (18-3, 10-2) came out firing in the first set as they hit .406 in the first set. Sweet recorded five kills in the set to go with two blocks. Callie Schwarzenbach added four blocks in the set on her way to nine in the match.
PSU turned the tables in the second set. After failing to record a block in the first set, the Nittany Lions (17-4, 10-2) tallied four in the second and limited NU to hitting .041.
Kubik led the attack in the third set with five of her 15 kills. Cook also used two challenges to help turn the tide. In the fourth set, Penn State closed with an 8-3 run which included three ace serves to set the table for the deciding set.
Nicklin Hames finished with 54 assists and 22 digs, while giving her hitter opportunities to terminate even without perfect passes. NU finished hitting .210.
“This team has really embraced that we are still in system when we are out of system,” Cook said. “Nicklin has got to be maybe one of the best bump setters in the country. She puts those balls where we can get swings and kills and she had a couple nice ones tonight.”
Even though Nebraska didn’t record an ace, they generated points with its defense and attack. NU limited Penn State to hitting .166 and finished with 14 blocks. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles had a match-high 24 digs while Megan Miller added 18.
The win was the first for the Huskers over a top-10 ranked opponent and moved the Husker back into a tie for third in the league with Penn State.
But more than the standings, Stivrins said she was proud of her teammates for sticking together after a trying week.
“To go through all that and still put a smile on our faces even though sometimes we aren’t really feeling it,” Stivrins said. “To play for the person next to us is a really special thing. This team can do a lot of really amazing things and I’m excited to see where we can take this.”
NEBRASKA 3, PENN STATE 2
Penn State (17-4, 10-2) 18 25 21 25 13
at Nebraska (18-3, 10-2) 25 18 25 21 15
PSU (kills-aces-blocks): Parker 16-1-3, Gorrell 12-0-3, Cathey 9-0-2, Hord 9-0-4, Gray 8-1-7, Blossom 0-0-1, Holcomb 0-2-0. Totals: 54-4-20.
NU: Sun 20-0-4, Kubik 15-0-1, Stivrins 14-0-4, Sweet 13-0-3, Schwarzenbach 4-0-9Hames 0-0-4. Totals: 66-0-25.
Set assists: PSU 53 (Blossom 49, Hampton 2, White 2), NU 60 (Hames 54, Knuckles 2, Kubik 1, Stivrins 1, Drewnick 1, Densberger 1).