For the past few weeks, Nebraska coach John Cook has been calling his team the most improved in the country over the course of the volleyball season. The Cornhuskers, the No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, entered Thursday’s NCAA semifinal on a 12-match win streak—and had swept all four of its opponents to get to the Final Four.
It took the defending NCAA champs five sets against Illinois, but they extended that streak to 13 matches with a 22-25, 16-25, 25-23, 25-20, 15-11 victory to reach Saturday’s championship match against Stanford. The Huskers (29-6) got 19 kills each from Mikaela Foecke and Lexi Sun, and they outhit Illinois (32-4) .251-.237.
Illinois hit progressively worse through the first four sets, starting out at .269 in the first and falling to .156 by the third. The Illini were led by Jacqueline Quade’s 28 kills.
The two Big Ten rivals had split a pair of regular-season matches, with each winning 3-1 on the other’s home court.
Playing from behind early in the first set, Illinois reeled off a 5-2 run to knot the score 9-9. In a set that featured lots of long points, the Illini took their first lead at 16-15. The Huskers regained the lead with four consecutive points, moving ahead 20-18, but two Nebraska misfires in the late stages of the set sealed it for Illinois.
That seemed to energize the Illini, who started the second set on a roll. They scored the first six points, helped by three aces and two Nebraska attack errors. The Huskers cut their deficit to four points late in the set, trailing 20-16, but Illinois closed it out with five points in a row to take a 2-0 lead in the match.
Nebraska took a 3-2 lead in the third set and stayed on top, extending its margin to as many as four points. But a late Illinois rally—on a 7-1 run--tied it at 21. A Huskers attack error gave the Illini a 23-22 lead before Nebraska scored the final three points of the set, on two kills by Foecke and one by Calli Schwarzenbach.
The fourth set seesawed back and forth, with neither team able to gain more than a three-point edge. Illinois cut the Huskers’ lead to 21-20, then did not score again. Nebraska won the set with four consecutive points, including kills by Jazz Sweet and Sun and an ace by Nicklin Hames.
Illinois thought it had tied the fifth set 12-12, but Nebraska challenged the point, saying an Illini player had touched the ball. The call was reversed, giving the Huskers a 13-11 lead and setting up the victory.