LINCOLN — Nebraska had Utah on the ropes twice in the third set, one point away from a sweep.
However, the 20th-ranked Utes fought off a pair of match points and eventually pulled off a reverse sweep for an 18-25, 24-26, 27-25, 25-22 15-13 victory Saturday night at the Devaney Center.
The comeback gave the third-ranked Huskers their first loss of the season and had them looking for answers on where it all went wrong.
“I think you can feel the disappointment in the (locker) room. We are bummed obviously,” NU senior Nicklin Hames said. “We were two points away from having a sweep. It really shouldn't have even gone to the fifth set.”
After winning the first two sets, the Huskers earned their first match point after Utah’s Dani Drews stepped on the 10-foot line for a back-row attack. However, Kayla Caffey was called for a net violation on the Utes’ next attack to stave off the first match point.
Hames won a joust at the net to set up the second match point. The Huskers sent back the first attack from Zoe Weatherington, but she converted the kill on her next swing. Weatherington added another kill before an error by senior outside hitter Lexi Sun gave the Utes the third set.
“There was an emotional letdown” after the third set, NU coach John Cook said. “We gave new life to Utah.”
Utah ran away with the fourth set, despite Nebraska fending off four set points. Then the Huskers had a chance to salvage the match in the fifth set as they led 13-12, but again Utah (7-0) scored the final three points of the set to pull out the victory.
Freshman Lindsay Krause said even when they would get a big kill or start a rally, they couldn’t sustain the energy.
“Those last three sets we were just playing really flat,” the freshman outside hitter said. “It would help in the moment, but sometimes our momentum wouldn't carry over so we just gave points right back. In the end, it didn't really work that well.”
Drews finished with 27 kills on 68 attacks. Even though the All-American outside hitter only hit .176 with 15 errors, she kept the Husker defense on its heels all night. She tooled off the Nebraska block often and then masterfully switched up to a tip shot over the NU’s front line.
“I told you, Dani Drews was worth the price of admission,” Cook said. “She willed that team to a victory. (She was) really impressive and fans got their money's worth.”
For the Huskers, Krause paced the Huskers' offense with 15 kills at a .317 clip.
However, Nebraska’s other two starting outside hitters struggled. Sun finished with eight kills and eight errors on 35 swings while junior Madi Kubik had six kills and five errors on 24 attacks. Freshman Ally Batenhorst replaced Kubik in the lineup in the third set and she finished with 10 kills at a .292 clip.
The Huskers also got just three kills from their middle blockers (seniors Kayla Caffey and Callie Schwarzenbach) in the final two sets. Caffey finished with 10 kills, while Schwarzenbach tallied just three kills and six blocks.
“Our middles were nonexistent tonight,” Cook said. “You got to have a middle attack and typically your middles are going to hit really well. Nicklin just stopped setting them ... So then, it comes down to your left sides. Ally gave us a spark, but look at Lexi’s and Madi’s stats — they hit zero. You're gonna have a hard time winning matches when they do that.”
Part of the reason for the offensive struggles was the poor passing by the Huskers’ defense. Utah finished with 10 ace services, including five by Megan Yett. from NU finished with just 63 digs, six fewer than its midweek sweep against Creighton. Even when the Huskers passed the serve it was often out of system. A quarter of NU's assists came from players other than Hames.
On many occasions, Hames was running all over the court for her 123 sets, which resulted in 39 assists. She also added four kills and 17 digs.
In the end, Utah's aggression helped them prevail and left the Huskers regrouping for next week's pair of matches against two ranked opponents.
“At the end of the third set and then the fourth and the fifth, they were going after it. They were really attacking us and we weren't stopping them,” Hames said. “We were tipping and rolling, I got to do a better job getting my hitters in better positions, especially in transition. I just felt like we weren't going after it at all and areas of the game.”