STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — For all the athleticism on the opposing side of the net, the controversial call that didn't go its way and the frustrating collapse in the fourth set, the Nebraska volleyball team had one more chance to extend Wednesday night's match against No. 4 Penn State.
But when Hannah Werth's serve fluttered wide, followed by a perfectly placed ace by Penn State freshman Maddie Martin, the No. 3-ranked Huskers were left to wonder what might have been.
The Nittany Lions got 23 kills from All-American Ariel Scott and converted the key plays in critical moments to beat Nebraska 23-25, 28-26, 25-17, 26-24 in the Big Ten Conference opener for both teams in front of 3,375 fans at Rec Hall.
Penn State (11-1, 1-0 Big Ten) outhit Nebraska .315 to .209 and also got 16 kills from outside hitter Deja McClendon to hand the Huskers their second straight defeat. It is the first time NU has lost back-to-back matches since September 2009.
“I'm disappointed in the result because I felt like we had a shot to win this, but we went soft at critical times and we didn't pass the ball and serve,” NU coach John Cook said on his post-match radio interview. “Missed serves at the end of games, and we didn't pass balls when we needed to.”
Gina Mancuso had a team-high 12 kills and freshman middle blocker Meghan Haggerty added 11 for Nebraska (8-2, 0-1), which certainly had its chances to grab the match.
After getting beaten handily in a third set that saw Cook send a number of starters to the bench, Nebraska was seeking to force a fifth set after taking a 9-1 lead to start the Game 4, only to see the Nittany Lions reel off a 16-3 run to go on top 17-12.
That's when the Huskers began a comeback of their own. Nebraska fought off three match points after trailing 24-21 and tied the set 24-24 when no Nittany Lion played Morgan Broekhuis' overdig, which fell to the floor between three Penn State players.
However, Werth's second service error of the match on the ensuing point put Penn State one point away from victory. Then Martin, who had five kills on 10 swings off the bench over the final two sets, landed a serve in the back right corner of the floor to seal the Penn State win.
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“We just sputtered and weren't consistent when we needed to be, and it starts with serve and pass,” Cook said.
After taking the first set 25-23 despite allowing Penn State to hit .412, the Huskers lost a golden chance to take a two-set lead into the intermission with a controversial finish to Game 2.
The Huskers earned set point twice with leads of 24-23 and 25-24, only to see Penn State win each rally. Then, the Nittany Lions appeared to be facing a third set point when Ariel Scott sailed an attack long from the back row with the set tied at 25.
But an official ruled Werth got a fingertip on the attack at the net and gave the Nittany Lions the point, putting Penn State on top 26-25. Television replays did not clearly show a touch, and Cook vehemently pleaded his case to the line official in front of the benches, earning a yellow card warning for his protests.
Werth staved off the set point with a kill to tie the set 26-26, but another kill by Scott gave Penn State another chance at the set, which the Nittany Lions converted when McClendon and Nia Grant combined to block Broekhuis for a 28-26 win.
“I thought in Game 2 we had a chance to win that, and I thought we got a couple horrible calls,” Cook said. “That was a big turning point.”
Hayley Thramer added 10 kills and a match-best eight blocks for Nebraska, which out-blocked Penn State 14-10, but the Huskers continued the ball-handling struggles that plagued the team in Saturday's loss at Iowa State.
With attacks from the high-flying Scott and McClendon, as well as 6-6 middle blocker Katie Slay, who chipped in 10 kills, the Nittany Lions were able to keep the Huskers out-of-system for much of the night. Nebraska hit less than .200 in each of the last three sets.
Cook said his team must figure out how to get into its offense more smoothly to avoid a third straight loss Saturday at No. 23 Ohio State. NU hasn't lost three straight since October 1997.
“It puts our hitters at a disadvantage when our setters are running all over the place trying to set balls,” Cook said. “We've got our left-side hitters trying to hit against two 6-5 blockers. It's a tough night when we do that.
“I told them we think we can be a great team. We have to learn from this. We've got to figure things out. If we get everyone playing well at the same time, we're a great team.”