MINNEAPOLIS — As Kentucky fans were beginning to think there might be a fourth set Friday, Nebraska players and coaches were plotting a rally.
The No. 6 Huskers had handily won the first two sets of their NCAA volleyball regional semifinal match against the 10th-ranked Wildcats.
But the third set was a different story until the end.
The Wildcats roared to an 18-11 lead, but the Huskers rallied and outscored Kentucky 14-5 to complete a 25-17, 25-20, 25-23 victory that moved them to Saturday’s 5 p.m. regional final against No. 14 Oregon.
The Ducks upset No. 2 Minnesota 3-1 Friday to advance to the regional final for the first time since 2012, when the regional semifinals and final were played at the then-CenturyLink Center in Omaha.
After losing the first set 25-21, Oregon won a marathon second set 41-39 before ending the Gophers’ season with wins of 25-14 and 26-24.
Nebraska defeated Oregon 25-21, 25-21, 26-24 on Aug. 25 at the VERT Challenge in Lincoln. It was the first win of the season for the Huskers after an opening loss to Florida.
The win over Kentucky was the 11th consecutive victory for the 27-6 Huskers, who now have advanced to seven consecutive regional finals. Nebraska has made the regional final 16 times in coach John Cook’s 19 seasons in Lincoln.
“I think Kentucky struggled with our serve, block and defense the first two games,” Cook said. “We’re the No. 1 defensive team in the country, and until you play us, it’s hard to deal with that.”
Senior co-captain Mikaela Foecke, who led all players with 14 kills, knew the Huskers would get Kentucky’s best shot following the intermission after the second game.
“When you’re coming out and you’re down 0-2, you obviously want to play really hard,” Foecke said. “Your season is on the line at this point. You’re playing almost not to lose. We didn’t necessarily show the resiliency we should have at the beginning.
“I think they took advantage of that from us. About halfway through the set we really started to fight and showed that we wanted to win.”
Nebraska’s rally from its seven-point deficit began with a pair of kills by Foecke that came from two of the 38 assists set by freshman Nicklin Hames. An ace by another freshman, defensive specialist Megan Miller, cut Nebraska’s deficit to 18-14.
Kentucky got one point back on a service error by Miller before the Huskers went on a 3-0 run to get within 19-17 when sophomore Lauren Stivrins had two kills and the Wildcats had an attack error by Avery Skinner.
The Wildcats won three of the next four points to pull ahead 22-18 and begin those thoughts of extending the match to a fourth set.
A kill by sophomore Lexi Sun and a block by sophomore Jazz Sweet and freshman Callie Schwarzenbach moved Nebraska to within 22-20 before a kill by Brooke Morgan produced what proved to be Kentucky’s final point of the season.
Sweet and Foecke had the big swings that produced the final five points of the match and kept Nebraska’s dreams of defending its national championship going strong.
With Nebraska trailing 23-20, Sweet connected for kills from both the left and right sides to get the Huskers to within one for the first time since the score was 7-6.
Foecke said it’s nice to see Sweet getting back into her swinging groove after a tough Big Ten season.
“Those two big kills were huge momentum shifters for us and really gave us a lot of confidence,” Foecke said. “So watching her be able to go up and take big rips like that in key moments when we really need her to is great.”
Foecke followed by getting the final three kills, but there was a bit of intrigue to the 24th point. It originally was awarded to Kentucky before being overturned on review. Sweet was called for a net violation, but Cook quickly used one of his coaching challenges to get another look at the play.
“I had everybody yelling at me and I’m trying to ask Jazz if Leah Edmond netted, and she’s like ‘I didn’t net, I didn’t net,’” Cook said.
NU assistant Jaylen Reyes “was all over it,” Cook said.
“That’s why I hire these young guys,” he said, “because they can see all that better than I can.”
Foecke then finished the match with her 14th kill for the win that improved Nebraska’s all-time NCAA tournament match record to 111-31 (.782), the second-best win percentage behind only Stanford (.796).
Cook said he was proud of the Huskers’ resiliency to rally in the decisive third game.
“It’s been building all year,” Cook said. “Learning how to win these close matches — we were losing those back in October. That’s a lot of the Big Ten preparation right there is what you saw.”
Sun, who didn’t play in Nebraska’s August match against Oregon, said Friday’s comeback shows the progress the Huskers have made. She’s also hopeful that growth will continue Saturday against the Ducks.
“Just to know that at the beginning of the season we probably wouldn’t have been able to do that,” Sun said. “I think that just shows our growth throughout the season. We came together as a team, we really fought together as a team, and I think it paid off.”
John Cook curious if Minnesota fans will jump on Husker bandwagon after upset
MINNEAPOLIS — Now that Minnesota has been eliminated from the volleyball regional the school is hosting, Nebraska coach John Cook wondered if Gophers fans would become Husker supporters Saturday — at least for a few hours.
“It will probably be a little different atmosphere here tomorrow night,” Cook said. “I’m curious to see if Minnesota fans will root for the Huskers. We’ll find out if they bleed Big Ten.”
Nebraska had a good-sized contingent of fans at Maturi Pavilion for their Friday matinee match against Kentucky. The ‘Go Big Red’ chant filled the repurposed hockey rink a few times, but the stately venue, which is connected to Williams Arena, was filled to the brim when the Gophers played Oregon.
The Ducks ended the Gophers’ Big Ten championship season with a stunning 3-1 victory that included a 41-39 Oregon victory in the second set. Attendance for that match was 5,187.
Huskers show their resiliency
How Nebraska kept its collective cool to rally from seven points down in its third set against Kentucky is one of the best barometers Cook said he can use to measure how far the Huskers have come this season.
“Over half of our team is new, so it’s taken awhile to develop all that,” Cook said. “We played four freshmen today. Their development and their growth and their maturity, learning how to work together and play as a team, it’s been our biggest improvement.”
Cook used timeouts in that set not to give a fiery pep talk or to make sure the Huskers weren’t hanging their heads.
“Those timeouts were mainly for us because we were struggling passing,” Cook said. “Kentucky is a very good serving team. Once we got a little bit closer and started making some plays on our block and defense, that’s what helped us get a couple of runs there to get back in it.
“We go point by point, so you can’t get too worked up. I heard them talking, ‘Hey, we can still win this.’ That’s the resiliency that we’ve learned in the Big Ten, competing in this conference.”
Cook knows hosting isn’t easy
Before Minnesota and Oregon completed their pregame warmups, Cook and two of his players already were fielding questions about their thoughts on playing the Gophers for a third time this season.
Cook knows the pitfalls of being a final four host, and much of the Minnesota media had already penciled in the Gophers for a win over the Ducks. Then if they defeated the Huskers, Minnesota would be playing in the final four in their home city.
Not one to fall for such tricks, Cook instead reflected on how difficult it is for the Gophers to be in that position.
“This is what college sports is about,” Cook said. “Minnesota has earned the right to host. We’ve been there before where we’ve hosted it in Omaha playing to go to the final four. It’s exciting, it’s pressure, it’s nerve-racking.”
After Cook and his staff watched Oregon dash those Minnesota’s dreams, he reiterated how important it was for any team in that position to proceed with caution.
“It’s the NCAA tournament,” Cook said. “I told you guys, there’s an unbelievable amount of pressure on a team hosting, especially in this match. The one tomorrow would have been easier, but this match is where all the pressure is because it’s one you’re supposed to win, you’ve got to win. Oregon had nothing to lose.
“Those two teams really match up well against each other. Oregon really matches up well against Minnesota.”
Elite 8: Nebraska vs. Oregon/Minnesota
When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Minneapolis, Minn.
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM