LINCOLN — The first round of the NCAA tournament can produce some unfortunate matchups in geometry, Don Metil said. And the coach of Maryland Eastern Shore didn't need a compass and protractor to tell his Hawks were outmatched Thursday.
Fourth-seeded Nebraska did what it was supposed to do in its NCAA tournament opener, defeating Maryland Eastern Shore 25-14, 25-10, 25-18 in front of a full house at the NU Coliseum. The win moves NU into a second-round match against Northern Iowa on Friday night in what is expected to be the final match in the Huskers' historic home before the team moves to the Devaney Center next season.
Nebraska (24-6) got another big night from its senior outside hitter tandem of Gina Mancuso (12 kills) and Hannah Werth (11 kills), and it was able to substitute a revolving door of players in a feel-good night at the Coliseum.
Ten Huskers played in at least two games Thursday, and the NU offense thrived no matter who was on the floor. Nebraska hit .455, the club's second-highest mark of the year, and all seven Huskers who scored a kill hit better than .300.
All four freshmen saw plenty of time, as Kelsey Fien joined season-long starter Meghan Haggerty in the starting lineup. Alexa Strange saw time in all three games, and defensive specialist Sheridan Zarda played much of Game 3.
“There's a different feel in the NCAA tournament,” NU coach John Cook said. “There's more a sense of urgency. There's just maybe more of a nervousness because there's so much on the line. So, it was good to get these guys in there so if we need them tomorrow, they've been in an NCAA match.”
Nebraska never trailed, and it decided each of the first two games early. The Huskers ended Game 1 on a 15-5 run and put Game 2 away with a 9-1 spurt that resulted in a 14-3 lead.
After that, Nebraska substituted freely. Senior middle blocker Allison McNeal drew a roar when she entered the match midway through the set and had a block assist and kill in her first two rallies. Her solo block of Ndidi Ibe ended the game for Nebraska, 25-10. McNeal led the Huskers with three stuffs.
“It was a lot of fun,” said McNeal who had just 19 kills on the season before Thursday. “Any opportunity I get, I'm always ready to go out there and play for my teammates. Like Coach said, these are our last few matches at the Coliseum so we need to cherish it and basically just go out there and have as much fun as we can. Good things will happen from there.”
Saitaua Iosia led UMES (25-9) with eight kills and Victoria Williams added six for the Hawks, which hit .083 for the match.
“They're pretty much a powerhouse team. They're a very, very good team,” Ibe said. “They swing hard, they hit high. Coming from the MEAC, we obviously play shorter teams. When you go up against Nebraska and they have people on their team that are 6-3, 6-5, it is definitely interesting.”
Said Metil: “When Hannah Werth is hitting over (UMES setter) Jessie Vicic because she's only 5-7, that's a tough day for anyone.”
The Hawks opened last year's NCAA tournament with a loss to eventual national champion UCLA, and Metil joked maybe his team could be a similar good-luck charm for the Huskers, who couldn't hide a touch of disappointment at being denied a chance at revenge against Kansas State in Friday's second round.
The Wildcats upset NU in five games in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament, but K-State concluded a late-season swoon by getting swept by Northern Iowa 25-18, 25-13, 25-21 in the session's first match Thursday.
“Everyone is really fired up because we know how much is on the line,” Werth said. “Definitely our 'Unfinished Business' theme, that just comes into play so much, especially today and tomorrow since that's where we ended last year. That's definitely not going to happen. Everyone's determination and fire, our confidence level is out of this world.”
The Huskers and Panthers will play at 7 p.m. Friday at the Coliseum.
“For us, it's still purple,” Cook said. “Unfinished business, still purple, we've got some unfinished business to take care of.”
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