A match in front of a boisterous, bipartisan crowd at the site of this year’s final four proved that the Nebraska-Creighton contest could be a big-time event.
But it was the teams’ two standout freshmen from Iowa who provided a sign that the rivalry could have star-studded staying power for the next several years.
Nebraska’s Mikaela Foecke and Creighton’s Jaali Winters went swing for swing near the end of No. 4 NU’s 25-17, 25-19, 25-22 win that put both rookie outside hitters on display in front of 10,131 Tuesday at the CenturyLink Center.
Winters led all players with 15 kills and largely was unstoppable for the Nebraska defense, which clamped down on the rest of the Bluejays. The Ankeny, Iowa, native hit .414 on her 29 swings, and was the brightest spot in a Creighton attack that was otherwise stagnant, hitting .139. Take away Winters’ production, and the rest of the Bluejays combined to swing at .047.
Nebraska put up 11 blocks Tuesday and got a match-best 17 digs from libero Justine Wong-Orantes, but NU coach John Cook still came away concerned with the job the Huskers did defending the CU freshman.
“We didn’t block Winters, that’s what I saw,” Cook said. “I tend to see the ones we don’t block. I’m glad we had some good blocks, because I’m going to have nightmares about the job we did on her today.”
Foecke was similarly composed in going over, and often through, the Creighton defense. She finished with a team-high 13 kills against one hitting error to continue a scorching streak. Since moving to the left side from opposite hitter last weekend, Foecke has 50 kills and a .542 hitting percentage in the Huskers’ last four matches.
“She’s a force. She hits the ball extremely hard,” Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. “We talked about that with our players that she just has more velocity than a lot of hitters. Sees the block well and has a lot of versatility with her attack.”
Nebraska (8-1) took a 2-0 lead in sets by forcing the Bluejays into error-prone swings. The Huskers had nine blocks and held Creighton (4-6) to .141 hitting over the first two games, making life especially rough for CU outside hitter Jess Bird. The preseason Big East player of the year had one more error (eight) than kills (seven) over the first two sets.
“They just didn’t give us easy points,” Winters said. “They made us earn every single point, and if we made a mistake, they really did just shove it down our throat.”
In the third set, Creighton turned the tables with five blocks and held NU to .119 hitting. Creighton erased a 13-6 deficit and pulled even at 20-20 when officials overturned a call after initially ruling that a Winters attack had touched the antenna. After a brief conference, officials decided the shot first touched the Nebraska block for a CU point.
It would be the first of six straight rallies in which Winters and Foecke traded kills. Foecke’s final blast put Nebraska on top to stay at 23-22, and after an error by Creighton’s Melanie Jereb, Nebraska setter Kelly Hunter finished the match with a setter dump.
Junior middle blocker Amber Rolfzen led NU with six blocks, but said even though the Huskers’ 11 stuffs tied a season high, they still lost focus on their technique, especially against Winters, who took advantage of the Husker blockers’ tendency to leave shots open down the sideline.
“Coach kept telling us over and over that we need to keep going out to the line,” Rolfzen said. “If you’re having a good blocking match, your coach would only need to tell you that once, maybe twice. You can always improve.”
The Huskers will need improvement to return to Omaha for the final four in December. But Tuesday provided a good trial run, Cook said. With the crowd split nearly 50-50 and cheering on big points for both teams, the CenturyLink was home to a postseason feel.
“We talked about it with our team earlier. This is a dress rehearsal for us,” Cook said. “They had their ‘Destination: Omaha’ T-shirts on, and this is our goal, to get here. I think the crowd was really into it tonight. Omaha is an awesome sports town.”
Nebraska (8-1).............25 25 25
At Creighton (4-6)........17 19 22
NU (kills-aces-blocks): Hunter 3-0-5, A. Rolfzen 3-0-6, K. Rolfzen 6-0-3, Hall 6-0-4, Maloney 0-2-0, Fien 9-0-2, Foecke 13-0-1, Wong-Orantes 0-0-0, Townsend 0-0-0, Ostrander 0-0-0, Albrecht 1-2-0. Totals 41-4-11.
CU: Jereb 2-0-1, Baumert 0-0-1, Winters 15-0-3, Wilkinson 2-0-2, Bird 10-0-2, Smith 7-0-5, Jansen 0-0-0, Foje 0-0-0, Elman 0-0-0, Kloth 0-0-0, Stivers 0-0-0. Totals 36-0-8.
Set assists: NU 38 (Hunter 33, A. Rolfzen 1, Hall 1, Foecke 1, Wong-Orantes 1, Townsend 1), CU 33 (Baumert 31, Wilkinson 1, Smith 1).
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Video: Creighton press conference