The Gophers keep trying to play their best match; Nebraska showed them how to win even when you're off.
The No. 2 Cornhuskers made staying steady look simple in sweeping the No. 12 Gophers, 25-23, 25-20, 25-22 on Sunday at the Bob Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln, Neb.
But this wasn't a match about the Gophers being overwhelmed by one of the best teams in the country: It was one team knowing itself and another still figuring it out.
The Gophers (5-5, 1-1 Big Ten) were in every set — leading 22-21 in the first and 20-18 in the third — but momentum felt fleeting. Perhaps the best takeaway was that after huge runs from Nebraska (11-0, 2-0) they never folded.
"That's important, because we know we've seen that from our group," coach Keegan Cook said. "The lead got stretched to four or five points and we talked about, 'Hey, this is an important moment for us.' "
What they do with it going forward will determine the fate of Cook's first season.
Nebraska has an enviable mixture of veteran stars and freshman standouts. The Huskers carry themselves like the standard bearers of the sport — bringing a history-making 92,003 fans to a glorified exhibition match at Memorial Stadium earlier this season — and have the look of a potential national championship favorite.
Minnesota hit .159 while Nebraska hit .223 — and the Huskers had more attack errors at 22-15 — but the Gophers' errors, including several on the serve, came at inopportune times late in sets.
"You're looking for two or three points there," Cook said. "The points are there to take; we just have to go work for them."
Nebraska will do that to opponents. There might not be a better floor-coverage team in the country, and the Huskers showed it Sunday with a rash of players contributing to their 52 digs, compared to 36 for the Gophers.
Freshman setter Bergen Reilly had 39 assists and eight digs. Junior libero Lexi Rodriguez, a former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, had 12 digs and seemed to be everywhere.
For the Gophers, high points came in glimpses.
Phoebe Awoleye was a blocking machine in the second set and finished with a match-high seven blocks. Mckenna Wucherer was tireless with 11 kills on 30 attempts, but she once again suffered from attack errors, finishing with eight and hitting just .100.
The Gophers did have success defending as a team, finishing with 16 blocks to 11 for Nebraska.
It can be hard to tell what to make of the Gophers 10 matches into the season, but the NCAA committee released their first tournament projections Sunday night and had them at No. 10.
They have played seven teams ranked in the top 15 in their first 10 matches. They have 18 matches remaining, only two against teams currently ranked that high, including a rematch with Nebraska at Maturi Pavilion to end the regular season.
Cook has remained clear-eyed about the Gophers' current limitations, the team building that needs to happen, the search for cohesion.
It's not ideal, but in a sweep at Nebraska, he saw some glimmers.
"I really thought tonight was the best I have seen us play in sustaining a high level of play and responding to adversity," he said. "We're not yet there. But it feels like we're ready to do the work."
The Star Tribune did not send the writer of this article to the game. This was written using a broadcast, interviews and other material.