LINCOLN — In the middle of the second set, all three Northwestern coaches stood on the sidelines offering advice and tips to their players trying to figure out a way to score more points, but they had no answer for Nebraska’s suffocating defense.
The Wildcats finished with 24 hitting errors, 13 of which came off of Nebraska blocks, and just 19 kills. The seventh-ranked Huskers easily swept Northwestern 25-18, 25-7, 25-18 Wednesday night at the Devaney Center.
Northwestern’s -.054 hitting percentage was the lowest hit by a Husker opponent this season. It was also the lowest hitting percentage recorded by the Wildcats (10-15, 1-12) dating back to at least 2014. In that time span, only Illinois in 2018 and 2016 held the Northwestern below .000.
“They just end up feeling suffocated once you block them that many times and you’re serving tough,” Nebraska setter Nicklin Hames said. “They just feel like they can’t get out of anything or can’t get a kill. It’s really frustrating.”
The only Northwestern player to finish with a positive hitting percentage was its setter, Payton Chang, who had a kill on her only attack. NU’s defense shut down the Wildcats’ Temi Thomas-Ailara, who leads the Big Ten at 4.26 kills per set, as she finished with just five kills on 31 swings with seven errors.
After Hames blocked the freshman outside hitter early, Thomas-Ailara adjusted by going cross-court. Nebraska (19-3, 11-2) countered by moving up Kenzie Knuckles, who had a match-high 12 digs, and took away that shot as well.
“We did a nice job on her and made adjustments as she did,” Cook said.
Lauren Stivrins led the Husker block with eight assists, but all six Husker front row players notched at least two block assists.
Freshman Madi Kubik said defense is a vital part of their identity and is something they work on every day.
“We take a lot of pride in blocking defense and to be able to hold teams to those percentages,” Kubik said. “We’re going to stuff balls, we’re going to get touches, we’re going to try to make it easier on our defense so we can be in system more.”
The solid defensive effort allowed the Huskers to hit .538 in the second set as they had 15 kills on 26 swings to go with just one error.
Despite the blowout in the second set, Nebraska’s best stretch came in the third set.
With Northwestern leading 5-3, the Huskers went on a 9-0 run that featured four kills and two blocks from Stivrins.
Junior outside hitter Lexi Sun led Nebraska with 11 kills on a .455 hitting percentage. Three Huskers, Stivrins (10 kills, 8 blocks), Kubik (10 kills, 9 digs) and Hames (40 set assists, 9 digs), all just missed double-doubles. Jazz Sweet added 10 kills at a .412 clip.
“It’s awesome,” Hames said about high hitting percentage offensive numbers. “It means our hitters are taking great swings and I am putting the ball in good places for them to take those good swings. I thought every hitter swung really well.”
However, that excellence was countered by a cluster of errors at the end of the set. Nebraska didn’t finish off the match until its sixth match point. Northwestern’s 5-0 run included three attacking errors, two of which were blocks and an ace serve.
Cook called a timeout during that stretch even though the match was nearly in hand to settle the team down and refocus them after they were acting “squirrely.”
“They started messing around and getting a little too silly,” Cook said. “I’ve seen it happen a lot with this group. It is a fun group and they sometimes have a little too much fun and they forget what they need to be doing.
“That’s why I called a timeout at the end because I wanted to have a teaching moment with them. What if we were playing in the final four? Would we be acting like that? You can’t play the score. It doesn’t matter your opponent. You’ve got to be playing every point like its a national championship point. That’s the mindset we have to have right now.”