Down two sets to none to Illinois in the nightcap of the NCAA semifinals Thursday night, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were staring the end of their season straight in the face, a season that seemed destined to fall one win short of a championship match appearance for the 2017 titleists. But Big Red found the magic at just the right time and turned a blowout into a thriller, rallying all the way back to win, 22-25, 16-25, 25-23, 25-20, 15-11 before a sell-out crowd at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
In the end it may have been a fingertip that gave the Huskers the win. Leading by a scant point in the final set, Nebraska coach John Cook challenged a ball wide call that would have knotted the score at 12-12. His challenge was upheld and Mikaela Foecke was credited with a kill that put the Huskers in front by two. Senior libero Kenzie Maloney followed with an ace serve that extended the lead to three for Nebraska, which won on the next point, a Foecke blast that eluded the desperate Illini defense.
With the win, Big Red will face the Stanford Cardinal for the title on Saturday night in an arena that will be filled to the brim with red for the two blueblood programs, which have combined to win the last three championships.
After Stanford dominated BYU in the semifinal opener, the volleyball-crazed crowd was hoping for a thriller in the nightcap between two Big Ten rivals. But Illinois showed no interest in obliging by winning the first two sets in impressive fashion. The Illini took a close first set, 25-22, benefiting from two hitting errors late as part of a 4-1 closing run. Jacqueline Quade, who had nine kills in the set for Illinois, used the hands of the Nebraska block to score the final kill in a set where Foecke, Nebraska’s senior superstar, was relatively quiet, with only four kills on 16 swings. Her teammate, Lexi Sun, led Nebraska with six kills but had two late hitting errors to help Illinois pull away.
All-America setter Jordyn Poulter exploited Nebraska’s shaky back row with three aces in a 6-0 start to Game 2 for Illinois. Nebraska trailed by as many as eight, 12-4, after a kill by Illinois middle Ali Bastianelli, before the Cornhuskers rallied to within 19-15 on three straight kills from RS Jazz Sweet. But three late Nebraska errors foiled its efforts to come all the way back. Bastianelli and Poulter teamed for a block to get to set point, then the duo teamed once more, as Poulter fed Bastianelli on the clinching slide in the decisive 25-16 win.
Maloney said a new determination came over the team after the second-set debacle.
“I mean, it was pretty obvious we were struggling early,” she explained. “We kind of just said we need a new team to come out in the third set. We all just dug down deep and genuinely believed we could do that, turn the match around. I don’t know, we just played with a lot of heart. It really came together for us in the third set, from then on.”
“We knew they weren’t going away after we won the first two sets,” said Illinois coach Chris Tamas. “You don’t make it to four straight Final Fours by chance. We knew they’re not going down without a fight.”
Despite Nebraska’s renewed energy, it looked like Illinois might sweep the defending champs when it fought from 20-14 down to grab a 23-22 lead late in the third. But a kill from Callie Schwarzenbach, followed by an emphatic smash from Foecke, breathed life into the Huskers, who forced a fourth set with a hard-fought 25-23 win.
Nebraska followed its two-point win in Game 3 with a 25-20 win in the fourth, a set in which its star, Foecke, had zero kills and took just three swings. The Huskers led 9-6 early on a kill by Sun but never led by more than that until very late. A Poulter dump and kill from Illinois middle Ashlyn Fleming pared the Husker lead to one at 21-20, but Nebraska scored the final four points, capped by Sun’s sixth kill of the set, to send the match to a fifth and final set.
“I didn’t really realize she wasn’t getting sets that game,” said Sun. I feel like at every point, I tried to do what I could to help the team in the best way I could. If I’m getting those sets, I’m trying to swing high hands, put the ball away.”
The fifth and final set was tense and close the entire way. Nebraska led 8-7 at the changeover but never held more than a two-point edge until that final 4-0 run settled the thriller.
“You know, when you get to this point, you’ve got to win close games in big points at the end of games,” Cook explained. “That’s what this team has been doing a great job of the last five weeks, six weeks.”
Foecke and Sun combined for 38 kills to lead Nebraska, which also got 46 assists, 19 digs and five kills from freshman setter Nicklin Hames. Quade had 28 kills and 10 digs to pace Illinois. Poulter closed her illustrious career with 46 assists, 14 digs and four aces.
“For us, this was another Big Ten battle,” said Cook. “This is what it was like every week in the Big Ten. Illinois is a great team. I mean, they brought out the best in us. I think we brought out the best in them. It was a very entertaining, fun match to watch, whether you’re a fan, a coach, a player.”
“That was probably the most exciting game I’ve ever been in,” said Hames. “It was a little rough at the start, but I think our team was really resilient and we fought really hard and I think that is why we are here right now.”