LINCOLN — After watching Purdue play flawless volleyball for most of the first set, Nebraska looked like it was in for a long night.
The No. 7 Boilermakers didn’t commit an error of any kind (hitting, blocking or serving) as they took a 23-13 lead in the first set. The Huskers weren't playing with any urgency, the crowd was flat and Purdue was dominating the match in all aspects.
However, after that first miscue — a blocking error on the 38th point of the match — Purdue’s air of invincibility was pierced. The No. 9 Huskers regrouped and responded with a 23-25, 25-18, 25-15, 25-21 victory Saturday night at the Devaney Center.
The win keeps the Huskers (16-3) undefeated halfway through Big Ten play at 10-0 with just three sets dropped against league opponents.
Junior outside hitter Madi Kubik said the Boilermakers were running a fast offense, playing physical at the net and NU struggled to keep pace early on.
“We came out and I don't think we're playing at the level that we needed to be playing at to beat a team like that,” Kubik said. “The shift going back and bringing that set to be 23-25 was awesome and it gave us so much momentum going into the rest of the game.”
After falling behind early, the Huskers responded with a 10-1 run with Kenzie Knuckles serving seven points in a row, including a serve that was originally called out but was changed to an ace after a replay challenge. Kubik and Kayla Caffey recorded three kills each during the rally.
The Boilermakers finally ended NU’s comeback hopes on their fourth set point and Caitlyn Newton’s seventh kill of the set. However, the tide had shifted and NU had the confidence it needed as well as the crowd of 8,321 fully engaged.
“In that first set, I think that the crowd was kind of taken out of it a little bit too, as we were — the energy was down,” Caffey said. “As we started to build momentum and get those points, I think they definitely helped fuel our fire.”
NU coach John Cook said he wasn’t overly concerned by the early deficit.
“We've been there before where teams come in and they're just playing really, really well at a high level,” Cook said. “You just got to weather the storm, and eventually they'll come down.”
After hitting .429 in the first set, Purdue struggled to maintain the level during the next two sets as they registered 13 kills and 15 errors. For the match, the Boilermakers hit .123. Newton wasn’t the same the rest of the match as she had nine kills and 10 errors during the final three sets. She finished with 16 kills and a .096 hitting percentage.
Cook said NU started to stress Purdue with their serve which helped throw the Boilermakers’ offense off a bit, but they also began attacking Newton more, which wore her down.
“I think she kind of came down to reality, a little bit,” Cook said. “We dug her a few times. I think it was probably just feeling the pressure and our floor defense and block. We started getting to her a little bit, but she was really, really good in the first game.”
Cook credited setter Nicklin Hames with leading the charge as the NU attack picked up after a slow start. He said she set a balanced offense and mixed up her sets to keep Purdue off balance.
Hames contributed in nearly every way as she tallied three kills, three aces, two blocks, 17 digs and 48 assists as she surpassed 4,000 career assists in the first set.
Four Nebraska players recorded double-digit kills led by 15 from Kubik, while freshman Lindsay Krause added 13.
The biggest benefactors were NU’s middle blockers. Caffey and senior Lauren Stivrins finished with 14 kills, which was a career-high for Caffey, who terminated at a .619 clip.
“We were just really flowing with Nicklin, both of us,” Caffey said. “When we're both on, it really makes it difficult (for opponents) and it opens up a lot for our other hitters because we're obviously a threat in the middle. It was awesome. It was so much fun.”
Cook said they wanted to emphasize going to the middle more often and improved passing allowed them to capitalize on that plan. Freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez anchored the defense with a team-high 24 digs to go with six assists.
The fourth set was tighter than the previous two as the teams traded points and errors. The Huskers pulled in front 11-7 after back-to-back aces from Hames. The Boilermakers closed to 17-16, but Caffey responded with a kill and block. After a slew of challenges and timeouts, Stivrins ended the match with a kill.
The win was the Huskers’ first over a top 10 team this season. NU won’t have long to wait for a chance to earn its second as No. 3 Wisconsin comes to Lincoln on Wednesday.
“The fans got their money's worth tonight,” Cook said. “It was a great match between two really good teams that went head to head and played some great volleyball tonight.”