LINCOLN — In the two years Chris Tamas spent as a Nebraska assistant, the new Illinois coach saw how much time and emphasis the Huskers put on tough serving. His old boss, John Cook, opens fall practices by telling players the fastest way on the court is to be one of NU’s best servers.
So as Tamas watched from the sideline as a game effort from his new team eventually wilted under a relentless line of Husker servers, he may have felt several emotions. But surprise wasn’t one of them.
No. 7 Nebraska had five players run off serving runs of at least four points to win its 23rd straight match at the Devaney Center, beating Illinois 25-19, 24-26, 25-20, 25-17 on Saturday night.
“They’re one of the best serving and passing teams in the country,” Tamas said. “That’s going to put a lot of stress on you.
“You can’t spot a good team six, seven points. But, they’re getting those six, seven points for a reason.”
In a match where both teams had their offenses clicking, NU setter Kelly Hunter out-dueled her Illinois counterpart, junior Jordyn Poulter, with 51 assists in leading the Huskers to .314 hitting.
Four Huskers reached double figures in kills, but Nebraska (16-4, 9-1 Big Ten) leaned on junior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, who had match highs in kills (17) and attempts (51) despite being matched up against the blocking tandem of the 6-2 Poulter and 6-3 middle blocker Ali Bastianelli, who leads the nation in blocks per set.
“Mikaela’s (total) is really impressive because she had Poulter and Bastianelli on her all night,” Cook said. “So that’s a pretty impressive number by her.”
Annika Albrecht added 15 kills, while Jazz Sweet had 11 and Briana Holman put down 10 for the Huskers, who will enter the second half of Big Ten play tied with No. 1 Penn State for the conference lead.
Tamas said he was pleased Illinois (16-5, 7-3) didn’t play lethargically after a five-setter at Iowa on Friday. The Illini were hitting over .300 going into the fourth set and ended the night with five players reaching at least eight kills, led by Bastianelli’s 13.
“I think their setter really mixed it up,” Hunter said. “Normally, we’re on tendencies and rotational tendencies and player tendencies. All of them did a good job of mixing it up and seeing what we were taking and going the other way.”
But the Huskers found the serving touch in important moments, putting together serving runs of at least five points in each of their victorious sets. After Illinois tied the match by winning Game 2, NU senior Sydney Townsend served an early 5-0 run in the third set, followed by a 4-0 run on the serve of libero Kenzie Maloney to give the Huskers a 23-13 lead.
“Volleyball, especially, is really momentum based,” Hunter said, “and two or three points can really just make a huge difference.”
In Game 4, the Huskers again sealed the match from the service line with four aces, including two by Hunter. Freshman Hayley Densberger quelled a 4-0 Illinois run by serving five straight points, a stretch Sweet started with a pair of kills after an NU timeout.
With Illinois keying on Foecke late, Sweet had five kills in the finale. The freshman opposite hitter added another out-of-system score in a late 4-0 run that stretched the Huskers’ lead to 22-15.
“I’m just usually always ready to get the ball because you just never know,” Sweet said. “Kelly can get you the ball from anywhere. Usually to just expect the ball is the best way to go.”
In NU’s two matches this weekend, Sweet hit .471 with 18 kills.
The newcomer’s performance may have been one of the few unfamiliar pieces of Tamas’ return to Lincoln. After spending some time in the afternoon catching up with Cook over coffee, Tamas received a warm ovation from the crowd of 8,256 fans during pregame introductions. When he wrapped up a post-match session with reporters, he stopped in a Devaney Center hallway where Hunter was waiting with an embrace.
“For me, it was just fun and nice to be back,” he said. “A lot of people were appreciative of our time here, and it was just really good to be back.”
Illinois (16-5, 7-3)………….19 26 20 17
At Nebraska (16-4, 9-1)…..25 24 25 25
UI (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Bastianelli 13-0-5, Prince 12-0-3, Quade 9-0-1, Omazic 9-0-4, Cooney 8-0-1, Poulter 1-1-4, Welsh 0-1-0, Walters 0-1-0
NU: Foecke 17-1-2, Albrecht 15-0-2, Sweet 11-0-0, Holman 10-0-2, Stivrins 9-0-3, Hunter 6-2-2, Maloney 0-2-0, Densberger 0-1-0
Set Assists: I 48 (Poulter 43, O’Brien 4, Welsh 1), N 63 (Hunter 51, Maloney 6, Foecke 2, Townsend 2, Albrecht 1, Densberger 1). Att: 8,256