Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Huskers Have Penn State's Number -- Again

By Brian Rosenthal

Kansas City, Mo. – This match fittingly came down to a joust at the net between two of the Big Ten Conference’s most decorated players, a dramatic battle at center court that could have gone either way.

And fittingly, given the recent results of this rivalry, the Nebraska player emerged victorious against her Penn State opponent.

Never mind that senior setter Kelly Hunter had to be reminded of the sequence before answering a question about her winning play.

“What happened?” Hunter asked innocently before Nebraska coach John Cook, a clipboard fittingly at his mouth to hide his words from reporters, offered a hint.

Some laughter ensued.

“Oh, yeah,” Hunter continued. “The pass was tight and it led me there, and I finally got a jump that I won. Honestly, I was a little surprised. It was a great way to win the match. Yeah, it was awesome.”

Husker players stormed the court and dogpiled after the match point, while the player who lost the joust, All-America middle blocker Haleigh Washington, slapped her hands together in disgust.

Yes, Nebraska bested Penn State yet again, this time for a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s national title match.

Junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke finished with 19 kills and 19 digs, senior middle blocker Briana Holman produced a season-high 13 kills, and No. 5 Nebraska knocked off No. 1 Penn State 25-18, 23-25, 24-26, 28-26, 15-11 on Thursday night before 19,000 fans – about two-thirds of them rooting for Nebraska –at the Sprint Center.

Nebraska (31-4) will face No. 3 Florida (30-1) in Saturday’s 8 p.m. national title match. The Gators, who defeated defending national champion Stanford in five sets in the other national semifinal, will be playing in their first NCAA Tournament final.

Meanwhile, the Huskers will take a nation-best 18-match winning streak into Saturday, when they will seek their fifth national championship, and second in two seasons.

“This team never ceases to amaze me,” Cook said, “with how resilient they are and how much fight they have and how hard they work together.”

That was never more evident than in game four, when Nebraska trailed 6-1 and 10-5, and it appeared Penn State, which had stunned the Huskers to win game three after trailing 22-18, had momentum and firm control of the match.

Instead, the Huskers regrouped and fought back, eventually taking a 14-13 lead on back-to-back ace serves by redshirted freshman Hunter Atherton.

“Hunter goes for it. She brings a mindset,” Cook said. “I know those Penn State passers are worried about her serve. We see it all the time, and it is high error, but it is a gnarly serve. She doesn’t know where it’s going, that’s one of the reasons she misses a lot. But it’s very difficult to pass. It stresses teams and stresses passers.”

Nebraska’s serving in general stressed Penn State, which offered far too many overpasses that Husker players were happy to hammer for easy points. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions struggled with their serving, committing 14 service errors.

“It was a competitive match in a lot of ways,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “And other than serving and some passing issues, I thought we were competing well in a tough environment.”

Oh, the environment was electric, all right. Loud cheers of “GO BIG RED” came up time and again, and Nebraska players fed off the home court atmosphere in a neutral arena 3 hours from Lincoln.

“You can see how many Nebraskans came down here,” Cook said. “It’s what makes it so cool about being a Husker and coaching and playing for Nebraska, because it is such a big deal. Regardless of what happens in the finals, this team will go down as a legendary team in the chronicles of Nebraska volleyball history.”

The Huskers finally clinched an exhilarating game four, 28-26, when freshmen Jazz Sweet and Lauren Stivrins produced back-to-back kills to force a deciding game five.

Penn State led 6-4 in the final game before Nebraska scored five straight points to take the lead for good. Holman had a kill, Penn State had a hitting error, Kenzie Maloney had one of her four aces serves and Annika Albrecht had a kill before another hitting error capped the big run.

A Foecke kill got Nebraska to match point, and the Huskers needed only two attempts to put Penn State away.

Again.

Nebraska has now won seven straight against the Nittany Lions (33-2) and handed them their only two losses this season. The first was a sweep in State College to open Big Ten Conference play.

Thursday's epic match lasted 2 hours, 51 minutes -- the lonest national semifinal in NCAA Tournament history.

“I told you guys all week Penn State-Nebraska bring out the best in each other,” Cook said. “I said it was going to be an epic match, and it was. Everybody should have gotten their money’s worth.”

Even though the Huskers were on the wrong end of the majority of instant replay challenges, they did have some good fortune in some areas Penn State did not.

For instance, Foecke stumbled and nearly tripped over Maloney on a play but kept her poise and somehow managed to keep her balance and sidearm an attack that resulted in a kill. Meanwhile, on a play that had a much bigger immediate impact, a Penn State player slipped on a wet spot and fell into her teammate. The two fell to the court, and so did a Holman hit – to tie game four, 26-26.

Such is volleyball, where one play can change momentum on a dime.

“You know, we could have won it 3-0. We could have lost it in four,” Cook said. “I mean, it was just a point-by-point battle, and we had the mindset going into this that we knew that’s what it is going to be like. I think the Big Ten prepares us for matches like these. There’s never any panic on our side, and they just continued to grind through it.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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