Huskers turn focus to Oregon after No. 2 Minnesota falls at home

Huskers turn focus to Oregon after No. 2 Minnesota falls at home
Oregon players celebrate after upsetting No. 2 Minnesota on Friday. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

MINNEAPOLIS — While it’s just the second time Oregon has gone this deep into the NCAA volleyball tournament, don’t expect the Ducks to be satisfied just reaching Saturday’s  regional final matchup against Nebraska.

Oregon dashed the hopes that second-ranked Minnesota harbored of participating in the final four next week in its hometown with a stunning 3-1 victory over the Gophers at Maturi Pavilion.

Now either the No. 6 Huskers or No. 14 Oregon will be playing Thursday at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis instead of the Gophers, who ended their season at 27-4. Two of those losses were to Oregon, and two of the victories came over Nebraska.

Second-year coach Matt Ulmer hopes his Ducks (23-10) will be able to descend from their high of beating Minnesota on its home court in time to avenge an early-season loss to the Huskers in Saturday’s 5 p.m. regional final. The match will be broadcast on ESPNU.

At least Ulmer has a sense of humor about the challenge of playing two high-profile matches in less than 24 hours.

“I’m sure it’ll be easy for us to come down from this,” Ulmer said. “We’ll get right to bed within an hour and show up rested. No, I mean it’s going to be a train wreck. It was a very emotional match. It’s super emotional, emotional within every aspect.

“We’ll try to get to sleep before midnight, which won’t happen, but we’ll try. And then we play a really good Nebraska team that I thought looked phenomenal earlier (today). That’s what you do if you get this far. It’s not going to be easy and you only get to play the best teams, so we’re happy we’re in it.”

It certainly wasn’t easy for the Ducks early on against the Gophers. They dropped the first set 25-21 before emerging victorious in one of the longest sets in NCAA tournament history.

When it finally ended on consecutive kills by Brooke Van Sickle, Oregon had earned a 41-39 victory . The highest-scoring set in the rally scoring era was a 46-44 win by Santa Clara over St. Mary’s (Calif.) last November.

Nebraska coach John Cook said he’d never been involved — or even watched — a set that lasted that long.

“A great battle,” Cook said. “There’s two ways you can look at it. It was like a high-scoring football game — whoever has the ball last will score. Or it was like a prize fight, just blow after blow after blow. It was great side-out volleyball.”

Cook also said that set serves as a good reminder of why it’s important to play each game point by point.

“You have to be able to score points when you need to, and you’ve got to be able to side out when you need to,” Cook said. “Both of those teams did a great job of siding out. We were in a pretty good rhythm and then our passing broke down a little bit in Game 3. When we passed the ball, we were pretty good today.”

Following intermission, Oregon used the momentum gained from the second-set victory to rout the Gophers 25-14 and take a 2-1 lead.

Minnesota bounced back to take a 4-0 lead in the fourth set and maintained a four-point advantage at 13-9 until Oregon’s offense began chugging again.

The lead changed hands three times and the set was tied  four times before the Ducks turned a Minnesota service error and kill by Ronika Stone into a 26-24 victory.

Stone is one player the Huskers will have to consistently account for in Saturday’s match.

“Ronika Stone had the match of her life. She was unbelievable tonight,” Cook said. “Oregon passed really well. They have a really fast offense just like Minnesota, but they outpassed Minnesota, which allowed them to really run their offense.”

Ulmer said Nebraska has changed quite a bit since the teams met Aug. 25 in Lincoln, the first weekend of the season. The Huskers won that match 3-0.

“Lexi Sun didn’t play. She was out with an injury. And they still beat us in three,” Ulmer said. “It’s a big block. They’re a pretty physical team, they play great defense and I think it’s only gotten better.

“I saw a quote that he (Cook) thought they were the most improved team in the country and I think that might be true. Their defense from serve to block to floor defense is very impressive, and they have one of the really good middles in (Lauren) Stivrins.”

With both teams now needing to refresh their memories about each other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, both coaching staffs were planning to be up most of the night putting together a fresh game plan.

Well, at least some of the coaches.

“We’ll be up, uh, (assistant) Jaylen (Reyes) will be up all night,” Cook joked. “Ronkia Stone is going to be a big focal point. The good thing is they do some things similar to Kentucky. They set a lot of back row, so we’ve prepared for that.”

Even with all of the planning, Cook said, it will still come down to the basics when the officials blow the whistle to begin the match.

“It’s still serve-pass,” Cook said. “Both these teams, before they played tonight, I think were hitting .300. We can’t be in a game like that with Oregon. We’re going to have to be in a defensive battle. Our defense has to have a big impact.”

Elite 8: Nebraska vs. Oregon/Minnesota

When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Minneapolis, Minn.

Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM

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