Volleyball Report: Huskers stay in title race

The difference 48 hours can make is striking. Late Friday night, Nebraska’s Big Ten Title chances seemed distant and the message boards were offering scenario after unlikely scenario for why the No. 4 Huskers had fallen to No. 20 Ohio State in four sets. On Alumni Night in front of more than 60 former Husker players, Nebraska saw their 39-match regular season home winning streak come to an end in part because of a tentative effort by the home team and a season-defining display by the visitors.

Sunday’s match was the one billed as potentially disrupting a perfect final season at the NU Coliseum not Friday’s. Following the loss, Nebraska faced not only the possibility of dropping back-to-back home matches for the first time since 2003 but also ending their Big Ten title bid in just the first weekend of the second half of the conference season.

The 21st installment of Penn State-Nebraska volleyball, like so many meetings prior, represented the best the college game has to offer. In front of an involved and well-educated volleyball fan base, two of the nation’s premier volleyball programs played an epic five-set match that at times appeared unlikely to end because of a diving dig or set-tying block.

Down 18-10 in the second set, hopes were dim for Nebraska. They had been wiped off the court in set one and were facing a deficit that in most matches would be insurmountable. The Huskers would feed off the 175th consecutive sellout of the NU Coliseum and their setter Lauren Cook taking a ball to the face to drive a 32-30 win in the second set and even up the match going into intermission. John Cook called the ball connecting with the head of his daughter the turning point in the match.

Our girls were laughing about it, but I think it just relaxed them a little bit,” Cook said. “It felt like things started going our way, because up to that point, nothing was going our way.”

[RELATED: Get the latest Big Ten volleyball standings at BigTen.org.]

Out of the break Penn State would respond to win the third set 25-19 and were once again in control through a set and a half. The Nittany Lions took a 15-11 lead in the fourth set and appeared to have brushed off the disappointment of losing set two. But Nebraska would tally eight of the next nine points to take a lead that they would not relinquish, forcing a decisive fifth set.

The Nittany Lions and the Huskers would play to a 6-6 tie before the contributions of Hannah Werth, Meghan Haggerty and Gina Mancuso would put the Huskers over the top to earn their second win of the year over the nation’s top-ranked team. The cheering would not subside for what seemed liked fifteen minutes following the final point and the emotion flowed out of the Nebraska players in what is likely to be remembered as the final signature win at the NU Coliseum.

Without a victory on Sunday, Nebraska would have been three matches behind Penn State in the Big Ten standings with the Nittany Lions playing six of their final eight matches at home, a place they have lost only once in their last 75 matches. The victory keeps the possibility of back-to-back Husker Big Ten Titles alive but Nebraska will have to earn it with matches at Michigan and Michigan State this weekend as well as a road trip to Minneapolis on Nov. 16.

Despite the loss, Penn State still remains in a good spot coming out of an arduous road trip over the last five weeks, where they played eight of ten matches away from Rec Hall. The Nittany Lions will host Minnesota on Friday night with a chance to finally spend more of the week in the gym than on an airplane.

For those of you interested in reliving this classic five-setter, you can watch a complete archive on BTN2GO. Here are the matches airing live this week on BTN/BTN2GO:

No. 22 Purdue at Illinois 
Wed., Oct. 31, 8 p.m. ET

Purdue won their 12th straight five-set match on Saturday night against Michigan State and is facing its third consecutive opponent that they beat in five in the first half of the season. The Boilermakers seem to have found their rhythm following a tumultuous month of October, coming off a decisive win against Michigan and holding on against the Spartans at home.

Sophomore Val Nichol stepped up with a career high-tying 15 kills against Michigan State and used her jump serve for the first time all season to run off a string of points against the Wolverines. Nichol has found some comfort on the left side after spending time at the setter position, on the right side and on the left.

The Illini are still tinkering with the setter position as after making the move two weeks ago to go with freshman Alexis Viliunas, head coach Kevin Hambly has gone back to fifth year senior Annie Luhrsen. The pair spilt time in the 5-1 against Wisconsin but Luhrsen did the setting against Minnesota on Sunday and the Illini were up late in two sets against the Gophers on the road, but could not close them out.

Both of these teams hit over .300 in the first meeting in West Lafayette, which made for one of the more exciting matches of the Big Ten season. Both teams have talented middles with the team that gets more production from the middle likely coming away with a win.

[RELATED: Find the latest Big Ten volleyball stats leaders at BigTen.org.]

No. 10 Minnesota at No. 3 Penn State 
Fri., Nov. 2, 8 p.m. ET 

The first meeting was an unexpected one-sided affair with Penn State stunning a packed Sports Pavilion by sweeping the Gophers on their home floor. The Nittany Lions hit an astounding .404 as a team and won the second set 25-8, taking a highly anticipated matchup and making a statement early in the Big Ten season.

The Gophers have won seven of eight since that Sept. 29 match and have done so with one of the most balanced attacks in the Big Ten. Minnesota has been one level below Penn State and Nebraska throughout the conference season and this match will be their opportunity to make the conference title race a three-team affair.

This match could be a great chance for the freshman Daly Santana to have impact performance with Penn State likely trying to slow down the productive attack of Katherine Harms, Tori Dixon and Ashley Wittman. Santana has powerful swing and can wreak havoc from the service line with her jump serve.

The Nittany Lions outplayed Nebraska for the majority of the match on Sunday but could not close out two sets where they had substantial leads at the midpoint of each. Middles will also be key Friday night as Nia Grant and Katie Slay had a lot of success in the first meeting with the Gophers so expect Micha Hancock to get them involved early.

Mike Wolf is a BTN announcer and calls Big Ten volleyball matches on the Big Ten Network. His Volleyball Reports will appear on BTN.com every Tuesday for the rest of the Big Ten volleyball season. You can also follow our extended volleyball coverage on Twitter with @BTNvolleyball.

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bob jones on 10/31/2012 @ 2:58pm EDT Said:

Freshman Meaghan Heggarty is an incredibly good player for the Huskers in her first season. It should be an interesting finish this year. Go Big Red.

tallygal on 10/31/2012 @ 5:18pm EDT Said:

What is amazing is that none of the Nittany Lion starters is a senior. More good years are ahead.