No. 5 Nebraska volleyball can’t hang on to early lead, fall at No. 9 Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. — Another flurry of errors. Another lost lead. For the second weekend in a row, Nebraska couldn’t close its hands around what would have been a signature road win.

No. 9 Wisconsin’s 25-20, 19-25, 17-25, 25-17, 15-8 win over No. 5 Nebraska on Friday bore many similarities to the Huskers’ loss last Saturday at No. 4 Penn State. Again, NU’s attack melted down in the final two sets after taking a 2-1 lead.

Nebraska (15-4, 6-3 Big Ten) hit .087, the lowest attacking mark in coach John Cook’s NU tenure. The Huskers had 29 attack errors, one off a season high, and have now lost three out of four matches in the same season for the first time since 2012. It gets no easier with a match at No. 3 Minnesota on Saturday night, a rematch of the Gophers’ 3-1 win in Lincoln two weeks ago.

On Friday, the Huskers turned to senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, who put down 15 kills and had 14 digs for her eighth double-double of the season. But she couldn’t carry Nebraska late with two kills in the fifth set. She didn’t get much help as the Huskers managed just 12 kills and 10 errors over the final two sets.

It wasted another sterling defensive effort by the Huskers. NU had 12 blocks and held Wisconsin (13-4, 6-3) to .114 hitting. Senior libero Kenzie Maloney had 20 digs, and freshman setter Nicklin Hames added 17, but the Badgers found enough offense to dominate the final two sets after the Huskers had gone in front 2-1.

“We did a great job defensively on them,” Cook said on his post-match radio interview. “Blocked a lot of balls, forced them into errors. I just thought we did a really good job. But we didn’t side out well. We were really high error. We didn’t finish Games 4 and 5.”

The Badgers did, despite their own offensive struggles. Opposite hitter Madison Duello had 15 kills, enough to offset her 12 errors. Six-foot-eight middle blocker Dana Rettke added 12 kills, while Molly Haggerty had three of her 10 kills in the finale.

Nebraska was rolling after a 25-17 win in Game 3, but Cook pointed to a moment early in the fourth set that foreshadowed trouble. After taking the first two points of the fourth set, the Huskers were poised to slam home an overpass, but Lexi Sun was whistled for a net violation. That started a run of four straight Badger points, and after another 8-2 Wisconsin run, the Huskers’ warning light was blinking steadily.

“On the road, you can’t let easy points,” Cook said. “I just go back to Game 4. We’re up 2-0 and we get an overpass and net. Next thing we know, we’re down 4-2. This team needs to learn you’ve got to take advantage of every mistake the other team makes.”

Nebraska made too many of its own to be so charitable on a night when nearly every Husker struggled in the attack. Sun hit .000 with 10 errors canceling out her 10 kills, while opposite hitter Jazz Sweet continued to be mired in a hitting funk. The sophomore had six kills and 11 errors on Friday and is hitting .000 over NU’s three recent losses to ranked teams.

“It’s gut-check time for her. She’s going to have to step up and find a way out of it,” Cook said of Sweet. “I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried encouraging her, getting on her. She has to step up.”

Nebraska trailed 3-0 to start Game 5 before fighting back to tie it on a block by Hames and Lauren Stivrins. But Wisconsin took four of the next five points to go in front for good after two straight Haggerty kills and another from Duello.

Foecke’s final kill got NU within 9-7, but another kill and an ace by Haggerty put the Badgers up 12-7, and the Huskers went quietly from there.

Nebraska’s offense put up only 45 kills in five sets, with Hames recording 28 assists. A setter averaging less than six assists per set implies a team isn’t spending much time in system. The Huskers didn’t on Friday, feeding Foecke and Sun 109 of their 183 attacks.

Foecke’s 59 swings were a season high, but by the fifth set, Wisconsin had two blockers on her, correctly figuring that was Nebraska’s last, best hope to find points.

“We rotated at the start (of Game 5) to get (Foecke) up there because Lexi wasn’t putting balls away,” Cook said. “We thought Foecke’s our only chance to kill some balls right now, and hopefully Jazz can find a couple kills, and we can get the middles a couple balls.”

Nebraska’s match at Minnesota starts at 7 p.m. Saturday and will be televised on BTN. The Huskers haven’t lost four of five regular-season matches since 1981.

Nebraska (15-4, 6-3 Big Ten)……….20 25 25 17 8

At Wisconsin (13-4, 6-3)……………25 19 17 25 15

NU (Kills-Aces-Blocks): Foecke 15-1-3, Sun 10-2-1, Sweet 6-0-4, Stivrins 6-0-7, Hames 3-0-4, Schwarzenbach 3-0-3, Maloney 2-0-0, Densberger 0-3-0

UW: Duello 15-1-4, Rettke 12-0-10, Haggerty 10-2-4, Loberg 6-0-1, Hart 4-0-3, Williams 3-0-3, Hilley 2-1-2, Dodge 0-2-0

Set Assists: N 41 (Hames 28, Maloney 9, Foecke 2, Densberger 2), W 51 (Hilley 45, Haggerty 2, Loberg 2, Dodge 1, Clark 1). Attendance: 7,052

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