Former Husker assistant coach Chris Tamas returned to the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Saturday night leading his new team, the Illinois Fighting Illini against the #7 Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Huskers made the most of the reunion, beating the Illini 3-1 (25-19, 24-26, 25-20, 25-17).
Freshman middle blocker Lauren Stivrins got the scoring going for the Huskers, taking the first point of the match with a tip over the block on the right side. Illinois then took two of their own to go up 2-1 on the home team, but then the Huskers took over.
With Kelly Hunter serving, the Huskers attacked Illinois’ freshman libero Morgan O’Brien, who was forced into service by an injury to senior Brandi Donnelly. Apparent confusion in communication by the Illini led to a 6-0 run and an 8-3 Husker lead.
Illinois chipped away at the lead, however, knocking the Nebraska advantage down to one at 12-11. The Huskers stopped the Illinois run and then scored the next two points to take a 14-11 lead and force Tamas and Illinois’ first timeout of the set.
Out of the timeout, Kenzie Maloney kept the pressure on the Illinois serve-receive, opening the Husker lead to 17-11.
Nebraska didn’t hold that lead for long. Illinois once again went on a run to close the gap. The Illini closed to within three at 19-16 and Coach John Cook used the first Husker timeout of the set.
A disjointed-looking Husker point out of the timeout gave Illinois another point, shrinking the Husker advantage to two, but Annika Albrecht used high hands on the Illinois block to stop the run and give the Huskers the serve.
When the Huskers again seemed to be gaining momentum in the set, taking a 22-18 lead, Illinois used their second timeout of the set. It did little good though, because Stivrins and Albrecht combined to block the right-side attack from Illinois to give the Huskers a 23-18 lead.
Illinois scored the next point, but then the Huskers finished the set off with two in a row. The set ended 25-19 Huskers.
Both Albrecht and Mikaela Foecke had four kills in the first set with Albrecht hitting .333 and Foecke hitting .300. The Huskers hit .395 for the set. The other three Husker attackers, Jazz Sweet, Briana Holman, and Lauren Stivrins, had three kills each in the set with Sweet hitting .500, Holman and Stivrins each hitting .600.
Set two started with two quick Illinois points, but the Huskers answered back with two of their own to knot the score at two. Illinois then scored two more to open their advantage back to two at 4-2.
Again the Huskers tied the score, this time at four, but then the Huskers took their first lead of the set at 5-4. An Illinois overpass of a Foecke serve gave Albrecht the opportunity for a huge kill, which she cashed in to give the Huskers a 6-4 lead.
After a brief back-and-forth, a five-point Illini run put Illinois up 11-8 and led to the first Husker timeout of the second set. The Huskers looked frantic and disorganized out of the timeout and Illinois extended the lead to 12-8, but Foecke smoked a shot out of the back row to stem the tide and earn a Husker point.
Illinois extended their lead to 15-10 as the Husker attack struggled to find the floor. Again a back row attack, this time by Albrecht, scored a Husker point.
The Huskers struggled to make meaningful progress against the Illini and still trailed by three, 18-21, late in the set which led to the second, and final, timeout of the set for the Huskers.
Though Nebraska scored first out of the timeout, the Huskers couldn’t hold serve and Illinois kept their lead. Finally, with time running out in the set, the Huskers strung together two straight points, and Illinois used their first timeout of the set holding a 23-22 lead over the Huskers.
Hayley Densberger aced the Illini out of the timeout to tie the score at 23, but an Albrecht attack sailed just long, giving Illinois a set point.
Jazz Sweet answered for the Huskers to tie the score again, but Illinois recorded another kill from the outside to take their second set point, capitalizing this time by blocking Albrecht to take the set 26-24.
Nebraska was outhit by Illinois in the second set .256 - .178. Albrecht had six more kills in the second set and was hitting .250 after two sets. Illinois block five Husker attacks in the second set, leading the Huskers six to two in total blocks after two sets.
Set three started off much like set one, with Stivrins finding the ground with a ball right over the block on the right side of the Husker attack.
While Illinois answered right away to tie the score at a point apiece, the Huskers then used a three-point blitz to take a 4-1 lead early in the set.
Nebraska extended the lead to 9-4, forcing an early timeout by Illinois. Stivrins tooled her next attack off the Illinois block to extend the lead to 10-4 Huskers. The Big Red scored another point, taking an 11-4 lead before Illinois could sideout.
The teams traded points before Illinois went on a short run of their own, closing the score to 12-7 Huskers, but Nebraska’s offense continued it’s revival in the set with the Huskers finding a variety of ways, including tips and off-speed roll shots, to score points off of Illinois. The dynamic offense allowed Nebraska to maintain their lead.
Nebraska opened the lead up to seven points again, at 19-12, which forced the final Illinois timeout of the set.
Kelly Hunter almost single-handedly sealed the set for Nebraska, recording a kill in the back corner to give the Huskers a 21-13 lead, and then solo block on the Illini left-side attacker to take a nine-point lead at 22-13. Holman added a kill to make the score 23-13 Huskers.
Illinois wouldn’t go away quietly in the set, however, and with the Illini riding a three-point wave, the Huskers took their first timeout of the set leading 23-16.
The Huskers could do little to slow the Illini momentum, however, as they struggled to control the serve-receive or stop Illinois’ offense. Ultimately, it was a 6-0 run before Nebraska could sideout for their first set point.
Illinois continued to kick and scream their way through the set, scoring yet another point, and making what had been a Husker-dominated set finish much closer than it had widely appeared. The Huskers finally finished the set off 25-20.
The Huskers hit .429 in the third set, led by five kills from Foecke who was hitting .237 after three. Albrecht had four kills in the set and was hitting .333 after three. Both teams had only one block in the set.
The visitors struck first in the fourth set as Kelly Hunter attempted to save a ball, but it went off the antenna. Nebraska answered, but Illinois opened the lead up to 4-1.
Nebraska had a four-point run to take a 5-4 lead with Hunter serving, then extended it to 7-5 with Foecke on the service line.
Illinois used a four-point run of their own to re-assume the lead, 9-7, and force a Husker timeout. Jazz Sweet made good on the timeout, scoring the next two Husker points to tie the score at nine.
The Huskers kept the current flowing in their favor, running off five straight points of their own to take a 12-9 lead and force an Illinois timeout, their first of the fourth set.
The Illini ended the Husker run and, after trading points with the Huskers for a time, closed to within one at 14-13 Huskers before sailing an attack long. Nebraska then strung together three points to take a 17-13 lead and force the final Illini timeout of the set.
Nebraska made the lead 18-13 out of the timeout, but Illinois Coach Tamas challenged the call, saying the Nebraska block had touched the ball. The short review resulted in the point and serve staying with Nebraska.
However, the next point fell Illinois’ way as Foecke attempted a hard cross-court roll shot that didn’t quite make it over the net. Illinois also won the next point on a hard-fought, scrappy rally.
After that, the Huskers took control again, scoring four straight points to go up 22-15. That was all the Huskers needed, as Albrecht buried an Illinois overpass to give the Huskers match point at 24-16 and though Foecke’s serve found the net, Jazz Sweet finished the match off on the second match point, 25-17.
Four Husker hitters had double digit kills on the night where the team hit .314. Foecke had 17 kills, Albrecht had 15, Sweet had 11, and Holman had 10. Stivrins added nine. The team had 68 total digs on the night.
The team had 66 digs, led by 17 from Kenzie Maloney. Albrecht registered a double-double with 14 digs.
After trailing Illinois early in blocks, the Big Red had four in the last set to score seven total. Illinois had nine over the match. The Huskers were led by three total assisted blocks by Stivrins. Foecke, Hunter, and Holman each had one solo and one assisted block.
With a sport like volleyball, where the vast majority of sets end with the winning team scoring 25, the score line doesn’t always show the difference between an offensive and a defensive match. This was truly an offensive explosion for most of the match. Multiple times throughout, the stat line had both teams hitting above .300, a testament to the myriad ways both teams could score.
The Husker offense seemed to open up on the right side tonight with both middles running slides, and Stivrins even attacking as a right-side. If that’s something that can continue, it will make this team even more difficult to defend going forward. It’s sort of a coming-of-age of this young team. You can battle all day in the gym at practice, but being able to do it consistently in matches shows the determination of this mostly young team.
The Huskers again hit the road, spending the upcoming weekend in Michigan, playing Michigan State at 7:00 PM Central Friday in a match that will be available on BTN and BTN2Go, and then Michigan at noon on Sunday. The Michigan match will be televised on ESPNU.