CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Facing an Illinois squad full of big-swinging attackers, the Nebraska volleyball team knew winning Sunday’s match may depend as much on absorbing punishment as dishing it out.
The blocking of Hayley Thramer and a highlight-reel defensive performance from Hannah Werth frustrated Illini hitters and let the fourth-ranked Huskers end the first half of Big Ten play on a high note with a 25-16, 25-23, 25-16 road win against No. 25 Illinois.
Thramer tied her season high with eight of NU’s 12 blocks, and Werth scrambled for a season-best 18 digs to lead Nebraska (17-2, 9-1 Big Ten) to its ninth straight win.
“I thought our floor defense today was really good. I mean, we dug some shots,” Husker coach John Cook said during a postmatch radio interview. “What was impressive was a couple of the balls Hannah dug were right to our setter and we just transitioned for an easy kill. Those were some shots they hit, and we were controlling them.
“That’s what we train for. We like teams that bang it. Those teams are fun to play. (Nebraska players) would rather do that than get a kill.”
Nebraska hit .310 for the match — its sixth straight match hitting better than .300 — with four attackers swinging at least .292. Morgan Broekhuis had 10 kills to lead a balanced attack. Gina Mancuso added nine kills, Werth chipped in eight and freshman middle blocker Meghan Haggerty had seven kills without an error in nine swings in a return to her home state.
The Huskers were efficient offensively, but controlled the match by putting Illinois (10-10, 4-6) on its heels with a tough serve that kept it out of system for long stretches. The Illini hit .147 for the match and fired 24 attack errors, compared to Nebraska’s 10.
Redshirt freshman Jocelynn Birks, Illinois’ hard-hitting outside hitter, led all players with 13 kills, but had 11 attack errors and hit .044.
“We’ve been serving well. We knew we could stress them,” Cook said. “We kept telling them ‘Attack with your serve. Just stress them.’ They’ve got some big hitters that are tough for us to deal with.
“When you can get that setter moving off the 10-foot line, it just makes it a lot easier for us to defend and takes away their range as a hitter.”
The Huskers’ serve broke open Game 1 early with Broekhuis firing back-to-back aces in an 11-2 run that put NU up 18-7. She finished with all three of the Huskers’ aces in the match.
But Nebraska needed a comeback to take Game 2 after the Illini got an early lead. The Huskers trailed 15-11 before going on a 8-2 run with Thramer and Broekhuis combining to block Birks for a 21-19 lead. Illinois cut its deficit to one point three times before Werth’s emphatic kill finished off the set 25-23.
Thramer added four more blocks in Game 3, including stuffs on the first two points, and Nebraska racked up six blocks in the final game to close the match.
Thramer’s eight blocks matched her performance in a Sept. 19 loss at Penn State. The 6-foot-2 junior feasted on the Illini’s slow offense, caused in part by the Huskers’ serving, that sent most balls high to the outside which allowed plenty of time for the Nebraska block to get set.
“Those hitters kept swinging, and Hayley had eight blocks,” Cook said. “Those will be highlight-reel blocks. Those are what we call bounce blocks. Hayley could have had more, but I think she was a little amped up.”
Six Huskers had a hand in a block with Haggerty, Mancuso, Broekhuis and Lauren Cook each turning in three.
Broekhuis, who handles the setting duties when Nebraska replaces Lauren Cook with an extra blocker, also added six set assists. The Husker coach said it was one of her finest all-around matches this year.
“I thought Morgan was really solid tonight,” John Cook said. “She got some really tough sets out of system and just really managed it well. She could have had a lot more errors than she did with some of the plays she had to deal with. Really solid. She got a huge stuff block at the end. We ran some points with her setting, which was nice.”
The win kept Nebraska one game behind top-ranked Penn State, setting up a huge match next Sunday when the Nittany Lions come to NU Coliseum.
Penn State remained undefeated in conference play at 10-0 with a five-set win at Michigan on Saturday. The Nittany Lions handed the Huskers’ their only conference loss when they beat Nebraska in four sets at State College last month.
Nebraska (17-2, 9-1) ............. 25 25 25
At Illinois (10-10, 4-6) ............... 16 23 16
NU (kills-aces-blocks): Broekhuis 10-3-3, Mancuso 9-0-3, Werth 8-0-3, Haggerty 7-0-3, Thramer 5-0-8, Cook 1-0-3, McNeal 1-0-0. Totals 41-3-23.
I: Birks 13-1-1, Stark 8-0-2, McMahon 8-0-1, Johnson 4-0-4, Dorn 3-0-1, Viliunas 3-0-2, Criswell 2-0-0. Totals 41-1-11.
Set assists: NU 38 (Cook 27, Broekhuis 6, Werth1, Dykstra 4), I 38 (Viliunas 33, Conard 1, Birks 1, Stark 2, Beltran 1).