MINNEAPOLIS — Momentum in sports is a capricious thing, perhaps in volleyball more than in any other.
No. 9 Nebraska had its chances at what would have been a big road win, but ultimately found itself on the wrong end of the final swing Friday night in a five-set heartbreaker at No. 14 Minnesota.
Pushed to a fifth set for the fifth time in six matches, the Huskers led 7-2 in Game 5, but the Gophers rallied behind their devastating serving to survive, beating NU 25-12, 15-25, 22-25, 25-19, 21-19 to tie Nebraska for second place in the Big Ten.
“A great match. Minnesota made two more plays than us,” Nebraska coach John Cook said on his postmatch radio interview. “That’s why I tell you ‘three games, two points better.’ They got two points better in the fifth. We had our chances and didn’t get it done. Frustrating.”
The Huskers (20-6, 12-5 Big Ten) seemed poised to grab a much-needed road victory after coming back from another Game 1 blowout in which Minnesota (21-7, 12-5) hit .520.
Nebraska hit .390 in the second and third sets to take a 2-1 lead. The Huskers then led 7-2 early in Game 4 before the Gophers took over from the service line for the first of three critical junctures. Katherine Harms had two aces in an 8-0 Minnesota run that erased its deficit.
NU rallied to tie Game 4 18-18, but then it was Minnesota freshman Daly Santana’s turn to terrorize Husker passers. Santana had an ace and kept the Huskers out of system with a 5-0 run that put the Gophers ahead comfortably, forcing a fifth set. Santana led Minnesota with a career-high 17 kills and added 10 digs.
Tori Dixon delivered the final streak from the service line for Minnesota in Game 5, serving two aces in a 5-0 run that erased Nebraska’s 7-2 lead. But Dixon’s hot serving was just the start of a rousing finale.
Dixon and Santana blocked a tip by Nebraska’s Gina Mancuso to give Minnesota a match point at 15-14, but Mancuso delivered one of her match-high 18 kills on the next rally to extend the match.
Hannah Werth pounded one of her 16 kills one rally later to give the Huskers the first of two match points, but Santana fought it off with a kill. The Gophers would side out three more times with chances to end the match, but Nebraska managed to save each until Dana Knudsen put down a kill that gave Minnesota a 20-19 lead.
Knudsen then teamed with Santana to block Meghan Haggerty to end the match and send the Huskers to their third straight five-set loss on the road.
“We had all the momentum in Game 5 and gave it back to them,” Cook said. “Then, we still had chances, so that’s unfortunate. But Minnesota is a great team. Now we’re tied for second in the conference. It’s a competitive conference.”
Ashley Wittman had 14 kills, and Harms had 13 kills and 12 digs for Minnesota, which outhit Nebraska .287-.263.
The Gophers held a decided advantage in the middle, where Dixon and Knudsen combined for 25 kills and hit .455, while Haggerty and Hayley Thramer, the Huskers’ middles, hit a combined .135 with 15 kills.
But it was Minnesota’s dynamic jump-serving that wreaked havoc all night. The Gophers were even more effective than their six aces would indicate.
“They were serving jump-serves, and you can’t let jump-servers get on runs,” John Cook said. “Once they sense you’re shanking balls, they turn it up and it gets worse. We had a huge lead in Game 4 and gave up a big run, and then gave up a big run in Game 5. That’s where people need to step up and pass the ball and side out.”
The Huskers hurt themselves at the service line, as well, with nine serving errors, including three each from Werth and Mancuso to offset an otherwise exemplary night.
Nebraska has Saturday off before playing at Wisconsin Sunday at 1 p.m. in the team’s final road match of the season.
“I feel bad for the kids, losing three five-gamers on the road,” Cook said. “But we’re fighting, we’re showing heart, and hopefully we’ll learn from it.”
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