LINCOLN — With its offense out of sync and a spotty serve receive, Nebraska again turned to defense to shut down Michigan and hand the Wolverines their first Big Ten loss.
UM entered Sunday hitting a conference-best .302 in five league matches, but the Huskers limited them to 26 kills with 24 errors. No. 5 Nebraska recorded 11 blocks and 46 digs, and eventually found an offensive rhythm in a 25-21, 25-22, 25-14 sweep in front of 8,028 at the Devaney Center.
“There are nights when the offense is off, your setter might be off and it’s just tough,” coach John Cook said. “You can always play defense and that’s just effort and mindset. They did a great job of coming from last weekend to put on a really great defensive effort this weekend.”
The Wolverines (12-4, 5-1) finished with a hitting percentage of .019, their lowest mark dating to at least 2007. Their previous low this season was .214 in a five-set loss to Dayton.
In the first set, Michigan started quickly with seven straight points for a 7-2 lead. UM recorded only one kill during that stretch, but was aided by four NU hitting errors and two aces.
But the Huskers (12-3, 5-1) fought back, tying the set 13-13 before a 5-0 Michigan run. Freshman libero Kenzie Knuckles helped NU respond, serving five straight points — including two aces.
“We needed to get back in the game as soon as possible and I know that it starts with the serve,” said Knuckles, who finished with three aces and 10 digs. “It gave us a little bit of momentum and a chance to play some defense.”
Junior Lexi Sun finished the first set with the final two kills. The 6-foot-3 outside hitter came through in the clutch again in the second set.
After Michigan erased a six-point deficit to tie it 20-20, Sun recorded three kills and a block during the next six points.
Sun said she wanted to be more aggressive in the final moments of each set by attacking more, not tipping and keeping serves in to put the pressure on Michigan.
“Today our goal was that when it gets to the 20s, that it’s time to turn it on,” Sun said. “We haven’t necessarily been doing that in the past matches. ... We stepped up and made that happen when it got close.”
The Huskers dominated the third set, hitting .609 led by Lauren Stivrins, who recorded six of her 11 kills in the set. Sun tallied three solo blocks in the third while freshman outside hitter Madi Kubik added two solo stuffs. Sophomore middle blocker Callie Schwarzenbach added five blocks.
Sun finished with a match-high 12 kills on .400 hitting, 10 digs and seven blocks. Cook said Sun has stepped into a pivotal role by delivering in the big moments.
“She’s getting more comfortable and she’s understanding how you play in this conference and the level,” he said. “She embracing, potentially, carrying some of the load that Mikaela (Foecke) had last year. It’s not all of a sudden that you flip the switch and that happens. They’ve got to get the confidence to do that. She’s been training really well and it pays off.”
Combined with a four-set win against Michigan State on Friday night, the Huskers notched 25 blocks in seven sets. Cook said those results stem from a great week of practice after a sweep at home to Wisconsin, when the Badgers hit .376.
“When I look at the weekend overall, I think the Huskers got tired of hearing about what Wisconsin hit against them,” Cook said. “We held two Big Ten teams that had been playing real well and we held them to .019 and .038. That’s really, really great defense.”