With three wins over ranked opponents coming in to the Omaha Challenge, Northern Iowa had penciled itself on the list of teams no one wanted to play.
But with every confident swing and every beguiling serve, the Panthers used Saturday’s noon match against No. 10 Nebraska to write that reputation in permanent ink.
Northern Iowa — unranked for the moment — earned its fourth victory over a ranked foe and its first win in eight tries against Nebraska, 25-20, 25-23, 14-25, 25-21 at Baxter Arena. The Panthers gave NU its first loss against an unranked opponent since October 2014 at Michigan.
NU rebounded to sweep UNO 26-24, 25-15, 25-13 Saturday night, but it was far from a feel-good end to the weekend after the Huskers needed to weather another lackluster start and saw senior middle blocker Briana Holman leave the match with an ankle injury in Game 3.
In Saturday’s first match, Northern Iowa (10-3) got 15 kills apiece from sophomore Karlie Taylor and junior Bri Weber, a pair of sub-6 foot outside hitters who carved up and frustrated Nebraska’s block all afternoon.
“I think, for all of us, Nebraska has been a team we watched on TV and looked up to Nebraska players, because they’ve been a stronghold forever,” said Taylor, who added 15 digs for a double-double. “I think coming into this game today, we were just like ‘You know, as little girls this is what we were wishing for, getting to play against Nebraska. We have the chance, so let’s go out and play our hardest and go for that win.’ ”
While Nebraska (7-3 after beating UNO) struggled to maintain consistency and intensity against UNI, the Panthers were the aggressors in a match that turned out to be a near-dead heat statistically. Both teams finished with 56 kills. Nebraska ended up with one more hitting error and one more dig. The Panthers came up with one more block.
The difference came with the Panthers holding slim margins in the first and fourth sets, offsetting Nebraska’s dominance in Game 3. And much of that edge for UNI came at the service line. The Panthers had eight aces, including three apiece by Weber and redshirt freshman Taylor Hedges.
When Northern Iowa wasn’t scoring outright with its serves, the Panthers were tying Husker passers into knots, serving between the seams in Nebraska’s back row and forcing NU passers to communicate quickly who would take the ball.
Too often, that communication broke down, which earned the Huskers sharp-tongued criticism from coach John Cook.
“Seeing all the balls that dropped, the lack of communication, the crashing into each other, dig balls and nobody’s there,” Cook said. “We kind of imploded and didn’t play as a team, so that’s pretty disappointing.”
Said NU senior Annika Albrecht: “I just think they outplayed us, and that’s really hard to take after a loss, hearing that we got outplayed and outworked. They were really scrappy.”
Albrecht led three Huskers with double-digit kills against the Panthers. The senior from North Aurora, Illinois, picked up a double-double with 15 kills and 10 digs. Mikaela Foecke added a double-double with 12 kills and 12 digs and freshman opposite hitter Jazz Sweet had 11 kills.
After dropping the first two sets, Nebraska showed flashes of the play that had carried it to six consecutive wins. But the momentum dissipated early in the fourth set as UNI jumped to a 7-3 lead. The Huskers held their final lead at 15-14, but two kills by Weber and a Hedges ace put the Panthers back up for good.
Down the stretch, Northern Iowa’s serving again held Nebraska at bay. A Piper Thomas ace gave the Panthers a 21-18 lead, and on match point, the Huskers couldn’t control the Northern Iowa serve. Thomas tipped down the overpass to set off the Panthers’ celebration.
“The one thing we just told our kids, go out and play hard,” UNI coach Bobbi Petersen said. “I’m just so proud of the effort they put forth.”
Nebraska was slow to find the intensity in the night match against the Mavericks. UNO was on the verge of winning Game 1 when Lincoln Southeast grad Meagen Roth’s tip put the Mavs up 24-23.
But after an NU timeout, Foecke scored to tie it 24-24. Roth hit long on the next rally, and Albrecht put down a kill in transition to give Nebraska the set.
“You cannot be upset with that,” UNO setter Sydney O’Shaughnessy said. “That’s just an amazing accomplishment by this team. It just shows how much heart we have, and how much work we put in, and how dedicated we are to this game. it was unreal.”
Junior outside hitter Mackenzie Horkey had nine kills to lead the Mavericks.
The Huskers would hit .450 over the final two sets of the sweep led by another 15-kill performance from Albrecht, who hit .343 in Saturday’s two matches.
But any good vibes from the sweep were muted when Holman went down clutching her left ankle midway through Game 3. She headed to the locker room on crutches after the match and was replaced by freshman Chesney McClellan of Maryville, Tennessee, making her college debut.
UNO coach Rose Shires said despite going 0-3 in the Omaha Challenge, the Mavs had plenty of evidence the weekend was a success. UNO took a set off Kansas State and Northern Iowa. And a crowd of 5,351 showed up Saturday night for the first meeting between the Huskers and Mavs since 1990.
“I feel like we wanted to go out onto the court and earn respect this entire weekend,” Shires said. “I feel as if our team continually performed at a higher and higher level throughout the weekend.”
Cook could not have felt more different after a humbling loss and a Pyrrhic win to finish the nonconference schedule. Starting next weekend, the Huskers will play three top-five opponents in their first four Big Ten matches.
“We’ve got to learn,” Cook said. “And we better learn quick because in six days we’ve got Penn State.”
UNI …………. 25 25 14 25
Nebraska ….. 20 23 25 21
UNI (kills-aces-blocks): Weber 15-3-1, Taylor 15-0-0, Thomas 11-1-4, Hook 7-1-1, Seehase 6-0-2, Johnson 2-0-1, Hedges 0-3-0.
NU: Albrecht 15-1-1, Foecke 12-1-1, Sweet 11-0-1, Holman 8-0-2, Stivrins 7-0-4, Hunter 3-1-0, Densberger 0-2-0, Szabo 0-1-0.
Set assists: UNI 53 (Hook 40, Sorge 8, Weber 4, Hedges 1), N 53 (Hunter 47, Atherton 2, Stivrins 2, Foecke 1, Albrecht 1).
Nebraska (7-3) ……. 26 25 25
At UNO (3-10) ……… 24 15 13
NU (kills-aces-blocks): Albrecht 15-1-2, Holman 8-0-2, Stivrins 7-0-4, Sweet 7-0-1, Foecke 6-1-2, Hunter 3-0-1, Boender 1-0-0.
UNO: Horkey 9-0-1, Roth 7-0-2, Blaschko 5-0-2, O’Shaughnessy 4-1-1, Sade 2-1-4, Gdowski 2-0-0, Mountjoy 0-1-0.
Set assists: NU 43 (Hunter 37, Maloney 3, Albrecht 2, Holman 1), UNO 28 (O’Shaughnessy 23, Mountjoy 4, Roth 1).