LINCOLN — The thought of Lexi Sun beaming with a heroine’s smile seemed far away at the midpoint of No. 8 Nebraska’s match with No. 7 Penn State on Friday night.
But the Huskers’ transfer outside hitter shook off a rocky start, and nearly a month of frustration, with a furious finish. By the end of NU’s 25-27, 25-19, 21-25, 25-18, 15-8 win, every Sun swing seemed golden. Her 16th kill on match point punctuated a three-hour marathon that started in crisis but ended in catharsis in front of the program’s 250th consecutive sell-out crowd.
Through three sets, Sun had a negative hitting percentage with nine errors and eight kills. She misfired three times late in the first set, when Nebraska (17-6, 8-5 Big Ten) failed to finish off four set points to let Penn State (18-5, 9-4) steal the opener.
But in the fourth and fifth sets, the sophomore didn’t commit an error, and in the finale, her conscience was clean. She drilled her first swing of the fifth set for a kill and would add five more as the Devaney Center crowd of 8,434 fans found a few extra decibels during each point of Nebraska’s 10-1 run.
“I think it was fun. I think the crowd was getting into it,” Sun said. “I think we were getting into it. Lauren (Stivrins) went on a nice little serving run there, got a little ace. Everyone was working together. Everyone was contributing.”
Stivrins’ ace in the fifth set was the only service winner the Huskers landed in 110 tries on Friday. NU coach John Cook’s lone complaint was how little trouble Husker servers caused for the Nittany Lions. Instead, Nebraska had to defend the hard way, digging and blocking Penn State’s powerful hitters.
It made NU’s defensive performance all the more remarkable to Cook. Nebraska’s 20 blocks were its most in one match since 2006, with Stivrins setting a career high with 10 to go with 13 kills on .522 hitting. NU held the Nittany Lions to a season-low .114 hitting, including an .042 mark over the fourth and fifth sets, thanks also to 104 digs, the most for a Husker team since 2004.
Senior Taylor Leath led Penn State with 16 kills. Freshman Kaitlyn Hord had 15 and senior Nia Reed had 12.
“You saw a defensive clinic by us tonight, because they were in system way too much for what we’re used to,” Cook said. “We just couldn’t stress their passers. We were trying everything.”
That defensive showing produced eye-popping numbers for the Huskers’ two senior captains. Outside hitter Mikaela Foecke had set her career high in digs by the start of the third set and finished with 29 recoveries to go with her 15 kills.
“Foecke gives it her all every single practice,” Stivrins said. “There’s no question about her work ethic, so it was really nice to see it all come through for her. I’m really proud of Foecke.”
Libero Kenzie Maloney added 23 digs, highlighted by a save on which she ended up tangled in the Nebraska bench after a dead sprint off the court in the opening set.
Trailing 2-1 in sets, Nebraska took control of the fourth set with a 4-0 run to lead 14-8. Three late Foecke kills sealed the win to force a fifth set for the teams’ third straight meeting.
Penn State took a 3-1 lead in the finale, but Foecke pulled the Huskers back with an emphatic kill followed by a scrambling solo block of Nittany Lions freshman Jonni Parker.
Kills by Foecke and Sun started the clinching run, with Sun somehow finding the floor on an out-of-system bump set from Stivrins. Penn State would pull within 8-6, but Sun registered kills on the next three rallies to start six straight Husker points.
When Stivrins trickled NU’s lone ace off the tape to give Nebraska a 14-6 lead, it was academic. The only question was who would deliver the final nail to give the Huskers a win after five straight losses against top-10 opponents.
In the comeback, Cook saw the Huskers learning to “flex their resiliency muscle.” Sun’s was strong enough Friday that on her 63rd swing of the night, she blasted a shot high off the Penn State block and out of bounds to end it.
“I think we needed this win as a team,” Sun said. “I think we worked all week in practice to get better and worked on a lot of things. That showed tonight.”
Nebraska will host last-place Rutgers at 7 p.m. Saturday to end its three-match homestand.
Penn State (18-5, 9-4)………..27 19 25 18 8
At Nebraska (17-6, 8-5)……..25 25 21 25 15
PSU (kills-aces-blocks): Leath 16-0-1, Hord 15-0-6, Reed 12-0-3, Parker 8-0-4, Weiskircher 4-0-3, Gorrell 3-1-1, Gray 1-0-1, Hampton 0-1-0. Totals 59-2-19.
NU: Sun 16-0-4, Foecke 15-0-6, Stivrins 13-1-10, Sweet 7-0-5, Schwarzenbach 6-0-9, Davis 2-0-0, Hames 1-0-3. Totals 60-1-37.
Set Assists: P 56 (Weiskircher 49, White 3, Gorrell 1, Leath 1, Blossom 1, Hampton 1), N 56 (Hames 46, Maloney 5, Sun 2, Foecke 1, Stivrins 1, Miller 1) A: 8,434