Nebraska vs. Pittsburgh Photo No. 5

Nebraska’s Kayla Caffey (3) and Madi Kubik (10) jump to block the ball during the game against Pittsburgh at Nationwide Arena on Dec. 17, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio.

Nebraska volleyball continues its ascent to the volleyball crown, dethroning another top-seeded squad on Thursday night.

No. 10 Nebraska took down No. 3 Pittsburgh at around 1 a.m. local time on Friday morning, marking its return to the championship game for the first time since 2018.

In most cases, hearing that Nebraska volleyball is an underdog, like it was against the Panthers, may roll some eyes.

After all, Nebraska was the only program to make the Final Four while already claiming a national championship when the other three didn’t. Still, senior setter Nicklin Hames echoed that underdog sentiment after the Huskers eventually took down the Panthers early Friday morning. 

Here are four takeaways from Nebraska’s two-day 3-1 victory over the Panthers:

Cool Hand Kubik

Nebraska stumbled out of the gates, falling behind 15-8 at the first media timeout and never stood a chance in the first set. The Panthers hit .586, and Nebraska’s offense was no match for the high-tempo Pitt offense.

During the first set rout, Nebraska junior outside hitter Madi Kubik was the only viable offensive threat. Kubik had four of Nebraska’s nine first set kills and, when the second set started, Kubik had another four kills before Nebraska took a 12-9 second lead.

The offense struggled throughout the first and early in the second set except for Kubik. When Nebraska’s offense started to find its groove in the second half, Kubik sat back.

Overall, she hit a solid .222 hitting percentage on offense and finished with 13 kills but her performance wasn’t marked by just offensive numbers. While on defense, Kubik had seven digs and was an instrumental factor in reversing the first set’s defensive misfortunes through her back row ability.

Digs are just one measure of defensive prowess but the progression of Kubik, who was oft-targeted on serves and attacks her freshman season, stepped up when Nebraska needed others to fill in for the the trio of junior defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles, freshman libero Lexi Rodriguez and sophomore defensive special Keonilei Akana.

In particular, Rodriguez was poor early on as a libero — a surprising departure from her All-American form. Kubik filled in well enough, and that’s not to mention her serving, which turned the tide of the game.

Kubik finished with three service aces, half of Nebraska’s service aces Thursday night. Kubik’s performance can’t be understated. She played like the all-around six rotation outside hitter.

The Middles

The offensive chess match centered around which team could win the middle part of the court. In the first set, Pittsburgh controlled the middle and limited senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins to just two swings. On offense, the Panthers used its array of hitters to beat down on Nebraska’s defense.

Four different Panther hitters had at least three kills, with Pittsburgh senior middle blockers Chinaza Ndee and Serena Gray having seven kills and no attack errors. Nebraska’s middle blockers were limited to just one kill in the first set and weren’t the usual dominant forces in set two.

Senior middle blocker Kayla Caffey and Stivrins both had just two second set kills, but the two slowly re-seized control of the middle court real estate. Gray had two early second-set kills but was fairly limited throughout the rest of the set.

Ndee was held to triple zeroes in hit percentage and, while Gray continued to shine, the Panther offense relied more and more on its outside hitters to overcome the Nebraska pass. That meant more long-developing plays that the Husker defense could set up for, playing into Nebraska’s size advantage.

Still, that was only half the battle for Nebraska’s middle blockers. Caffey and Stivrins remained relatively quiet until the fourth set when each middle blocker notched four kills. The match fittingly ended through the arm of Stivrins, who had a hand on Nebraska’s last three points.

By the end of the match, the Panthers had no answers for the Husker middle blockers and lost the area they so coveted back in set one.

Control the service line, control the game

Pitt’s first-set dominance came from its serve and tempo control throughout the set. The Huskers slowly took control of the match through their serve, and got some help from the Panthers.

Nebraska had a 1:1 aces-to-error ratio, or for every one ace Nebraska had one service error. Pittsburgh had a 1:2.4 aces-to-error ratio; the Panthers were committing over double the errors for every ace they got.

The Panthers lost their grip throughout the second set and that problem would further be exacerbated in the third. Overall, the Panthers had nine service errors in sets two and three and were forced to play much slower than the first set.

Nebraska had just six service aces, but rarely beat itself at the service line unlike the Panthers. When Nebraska didn’t have service aces, it led key scoring runs such as Stivrins’ 4-0 run at the line to give a 23-19 third set lead.

Still, there were two key areas where Pittsburgh needed to win for it to have a shot against the Huskers.

One was digs, which Pittsburgh took the advantage 56-50. As mentioned earlier, Nebraska’s backrow trio wasn’t as consistent and that helped Pittsburgh’s offense with getting points when it needed to.

Pittsburgh held the kills advantage 52-51, which is only one kill more, but still significant because the Panthers were terminating at a decent rate with a .233 hitting percentage. Nebraska, meanwhile, came into Thursday the top of the Big Ten in opponent hitting percentage yet the Panthers found holes within the suffocating Husker defense.

Ultimately, Nebraska won the match like it did against No. 2 Texas: at the service line. If Nebraska wasn’t getting service aces, so the Husker serve put the Panthers offense into a bind where it couldn’t pass as easily to the middle to get quick direct shots. Pittsburgh operated at a much slower pace and couldn’t use their speed to offset the size of the Husker block.

Fourth-set shenanigans

Nebraska won set three 25-20, catapulting to a 2-1 overall lead with a 7-2 run following an 18-18 stalemate. Then, the Huskers took a quick 3-0 lead at the beginning of the fourth set. The Huskers kept their distance with Pittsburgh, even holding a four-point lead as late as 18-14 but the Panthers clawed their way back into the match.

Gray, held in check through the last two sets, had four kills on six swings in the fourth set. The once-sputtering Panther offense didn’t just have Gray but had timely kills from senior outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh that pushed the set to a 20-20 tie.

The Panthers offense seen back in set one made a return, putting Nebraska on its heels as different Panthers took turns swinging at the Husker defense. Pittsburgh’s offense runs through two setters, freshman Rachel Fairbanks and junior Lexis Akeo, who could set up any Panther hitter and did so effortlessly in the middle part of the fourth set.

Fatigue was setting in for Nebraska, and was no coincidence considering the game started at 10:30 p.m. local time and now was running well-past midnight. Both sides were running on fumes, which put immense pressure on Nebraska to close out the match.

Freshman outside hitter Lindsay Krause helped on a block with Stivrins to take a 21-20 lead. Then, another Husker block attempt seemed to backfire as the ball bounced off the net but the bounce went just over the fingertips of two Husker blockers.

Nebraska took a 24-21 lead after two consecutive Stivrins kills, but a strange error from freshman outside hitter Ally Batenhorst put the Panthers back into the match. Batenhorst had hit net on an overpass, giving Pittsburgh one last shot.

Nebraska won 25-22 despite the Panthers out-hitting the Huskers and out-digging Nebraska in that fourth set. It’s a rare sight to see Nebraska lose in digs, but even more unlikely that the Huskers won despite losing that digs battle.