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Volleyball: Northwestern swept by No. 2 Nebraska, escapes against Michigan

Before becoming ranked No. 1 in the country, Nebraska visited Evanston for a bout with the ‘Cats.

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After embarking on a stretch in which it played four of five matches on the road, Northwestern volleyball returned home for a mini-homestand against then-No. 2 Nebraska and Michigan last week. Fitting with the theme of its season, the two matches had tons of peaks and valleys. The Wildcats lost to the Huskers in straight sets on Wednesday before coming back on Saturday to defeat the Wolverines in five and improve to 4-6 in Big Ten play.

Nebraska entered Welsh-Ryan Arena undefeated, and immediately proved why. Sophomore middle blocker Bekka Allick dominated from the start, picking up three kills and two block assists in the early going to propel UNL to a 7-3 lead. Kills from NU’s Averie Hernandez and Leilani Dodson kept the first set from getting out of hand, but those two points sandwiched three straight kills by the Huskers.

A 14-6 deficit didn’t deter Northwestern, which went on a 4-0 run highlighted by an ace and a kill from Alexa Rousseau. However, that’s when Merritt Beason began to take over. She helped extend Nebraska’s lead all the way back to 24-14 with three kills and an ace in that run alone, and Andi Jackson punctuated the 25-15 set win off an assist from Bergen Reilly. The ‘Cats battled late in the first, but the Huskers’ eye-popping hitting percentage of 48.3% overwhelmed them.

It only got tougher for Northwestern in the second set, as Nebraska put up a hitting percentage north of 54%. However, the Wildcats responded well initially, especially against UNL serves. Ellee Stinson’s defense and a few kills from Dodson and Rylen Reid brought the ‘Cats to within four (17-13) deep into the set. From there, though, Nebraska regained its composure to take the second set 25-16, committing only one error the entire set and putting up a kill percentage right around 60.

The third set was NU’s best one. Dodson shined both as a blocker and as a server, while Hernandez and Kathryn Randorf each sparked big runs with multiple kills that helped the Wildcats tie the Huskers up at 16. However, Nebraska once again slammed the door shut, thanks to four straight kills from Harper Murray. Hernandez continued to shine in a dominant set en route to an 11-kill night, but the Cornhuskers forced her to commit the attack error that won them the contest. Northwestern could only a manage a 14.1% hitting percentage for the match, and fell below .500 overall.

Three days later, the ‘Cats had a great opportunity to rebound against Michigan, which came to Evanston with a 3-15 record and a 1-8 Big Ten mark. Where did that lone victory come from, you might ask? It was against Northwestern just two weeks prior.

The Wildcats were out for revenge, and they made it clear. After falling behind 8-5, NU ripped off an 11-1 run to seize control of the first set. Maddy Chinn picked up three kills and a block assist to fuel the stretch. Michigan put up a couple points here and there, but back-to-back aces from Gigi Navarrete and four kills from Hernandez gave the ‘Cats a 25-13 win.

Northwestern appeared to be taking care of business with a 10-7 start to the second set, but this time it was Michigan with the comeback. Valentina Vaulet totaled eight kills in the set, leading her team to kill percentage of 45.2%. She spearheaded the closing 6-0 run to tie the match up at one with a 25-19 win.

Shane Davis’s team continued its struggles in the third, as UM again took control with a run in the middle of the set. After cutting Michigan’s lead to 11-9, Northwestern never got within three points again. A hitting percentage of just 5.9% — following up a 2.7% mark in the second set — made it difficult for the Wildcats to spark a hot stretch offensively.

With its backs against the wall, they clawed their way to a back-and-forth fourth set with the Wolverines. Again, it was Hernandez who shined, as she smacked three aces before NU had put up 15 points. Following two service errors from Reid, two more kills from Chinn gave the ‘Cats a 19-18 edge. Northwestern kept picking up more kills, but Michigan’s Kendall Murray dominated to force back-to-back match points with a one-point lead. The Wolverines couldn’t clinch the win on either, as Hernandez and Chinn each picked up kills. After the former Purdue player picked up a block assist and Rousseau punched a kill of her own, Northwestern found new life with a 28-26 set win.

In the fifth set, a number of Michigan errors and Northwestern kills proved to be decisive. The Wolverines had it tied at seven, but then committed three service errors over the remainder of the set to give NU three of the points it needed for the 15-11 set win, and the 3-2 comeback. Stinson accumulated 24 digs — the third-highest total in her career — while Chinn, Hernandez and Dodson racked up double-digit kills. Michigan had a better kill total and hitting percentage than Northwestern for the match, but its 19 service errors compared to NU’s two was costly.

The Wildcats will head back on the road this afternoon to take on Ohio State at 5 p.m. CT, before heading back home to face off against Indiana on Sunday at 1 p.m. The OSU match will be broadcast on Big Ten Network, and the one against the Hoosiers will air on Big Ten Plus.