UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At the start of the year, Annika Albrecht was a question mark. At the beginning of the week, Briana Holman’s injury status was an uncertainty.
The seniors answered both questions in Friday night’s Big Ten opener by sending an emphatic message: The defending Big Ten champs aren’t going anywhere.
No. 14 Nebraska stunned No. 2 Penn State, handing the Nittany Lions their first loss of the season, 26-24, 25-19, 25-20 at Rec Hall.
Albrecht and Holman combined for 32 kills on .475 hitting. The Huskers became the first team to sweep Penn State on its home floor since 2003. It was the highlight of a performance that left coach John Cook speechless to begin his post-match radio interview. Nebraska (8-3, 1-0 Big Ten) hit .347 as a team, led by a bevy of blasts from Holman and the full variety of Albrecht’s offensive arsenal.
“If you’d have told me we’d hit — I don’t think we’ve hit .347 since (setter Kelly Hunter) has been back — hit .347 here and win 3-0 here. Wow. It’s a really impressive performance by our team,” he said. “They just played really tough, mentally tough.”
And in Holman’s case, physically tough, as well. The senior middle blocker played the entire match despite injuring her ankle last Saturday against UNO and seeing limited practice time this week. As early as Thursday, Cook waffled on whether she would play against the Nittany Lions.
But Cook said Holman insisted she was good to go, and she kept any of Cook’s concerns behind lips after she pounded down kills on her first nine swings on the way to 13 kills on 16 attempts.
“She wanted to play tonight,” Cook said. “I really didn’t want to play her because I was worried about her getting worse and getting injured. But her first couple swings were pretty impressive.”
As were most of Albrecht’s 40 attempts, of which 19 found the floor to give the senior outside hitter a career high in kills.
They came every which way at many of the match’s biggest turning points. Albrecht tooled the Penn State block and tucked shots deep into the corners of the court. Even when Penn State (10-1, 0-1) seemingly had Nebraska on the run while out of system, if the ball went to Albrecht, the Nittany Lions ended the rally in frustration.
Albrecht said in a telephone interview after the match her improvement in some tough hitting situations has come as she’s learned to trust her teammates behind her calling out open spots when she goes up to swing. She now has had at least 15 kills in three straight matches heading into Saturday’s 6 p.m. match at Rutgers (5-8, 0-1)
“I’ve probably gotten more confident,” she said. “It just really helps that I know the team’s support is behind me no matter what. If I get blocked, I’m confident the people behind me are covering.”
Nebraska’s resolve was tested in a close first set when Penn State took its first lead at 20-19. The Huskers responded with four straight points capped by two Albrecht kills to go up 23-20 before the Nittany Lions took four of the next five rallies to even it 24-24.
But after a serving error by Ali Frantti gave Nebraska a third set point, the Huskers’ defense clinched it. Penn State sent the ball to All-America outside hitter Simone Lee, who had eight kills in the first set. A ninth wouldn’t come, however, as Lee was stuffed by Hunter and freshman Lauren Stivrins on Nebraska’s only block of the opener.
The latest NU would trail at any point the rest of the night was 5-4 in the third set. Nebraska regularly kept its margin at two or three points by siding out at 73 percent. Hunter had 39 assists and six kills to help keep the Nittany Lions off balance.
Nebraska’s block and floor defense eventually caught up to the nation’s top attacking team. Penn State came into the match hitting .360, but hit .227 on Friday. Lee was subdued after Game 1, finishing with 15 kills, and four Huskers finished with at least nine digs, led by 12 from junior libero Kenzie Maloney.
“We definitely showed how strong we are mentally as a team,” Albrecht said. “They would bounce balls and get great blocks, and it didn’t matter. We knew they would do that, and it was on to the next play.”
And at the end, it was the Nittany Lions who flinched with a chance to avoid the sweep. After Hunter’s serve sailed wide to cut NU’s lead to 20-19, Lee sent her own serve out of bounds. On the next point, Holman ended one of the night’s longest rallies by tipping down an over pass to make it 22-19.
The Huskers’ final three points each came on swings from Albrecht, who set her career high in kills with one last blast on match point that sailed over the Penn State block, off of Lee’s diving dig attempt, and into the crowd.
Albrecht was asked to reconcile Nebraska’s performance Friday with its tepid loss to Northern Iowa last weekend.
“Honestly, I think it’s easier to play the great teams because you play up to that level,” she said. “Penn State is a great team.”
But the teams’ only scheduled meeting of the year ended with the same result as the previous five — a Nebraska win.
Which means, unless Penn State and NU are matched up again in the NCAA tournament, the Nittany Lions’ seniors, considered perhaps the best recruiting class in NCAA history when they arrived in 2014, will finish 1-6 against Nebraska.
“They’re pretty darn mentally tough because this is not an easy place to play,” Cook said of his team, “and it seemed like we just got better as the match went on, and Penn State went the other way.”
Nebraska (8-3, 1-0) ………………. 26 25 25
At Penn State (10-1, 0-1) ………. 24 19 20
NU (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Albrecht 19-0-4, Holman 13-0-3, Foecke 8-0-0, Stivrins 8-0-4, Hunter 6-0-1, Sweet 5-0-2
PSU: Lee 15-0-2, Frantti 9-0-1, Washington 6-0-4, Detering 3-0-1, Gorrell 3-0-2, Weiskircher 1-0-0, Reed 1-0-1, Thelen 0-0-2
Set Assists: NU 53 (Hunter 39, Maloney 5, Foecke 3, Townsend 3, Albrecht 2, Holman 1), PSU 37 (Detering 20, Weiskircher 14, Lee 1, Gorrell 1, White 1) Att: 3,763
Nebraska at Rutgers
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: College Avenue Gym, New Brunswick, New Jersey
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM