Volleyball: Northwestern stuns No. 2 Nebraska, keeps NCAA hopes alive

Steven Montero

“Was that real?” senior Alex Ayers said. “Like someone wake me up.”

That was the stunned aftermath after Northwestern stunned No. 2 Nebraska Saturday, defeating the Cornhuskers 3-1.

It was the first time the two teams ever faced off in Big Ten play and Nebraska (24-4, 17-3 Big Ten) loomed large with its high ranking, having lost only two conference matches this season, both to top-10 opponents.

“They underestimated us a lot,” Ayers said. “We wanted to make them pay for that.”

The Wildcats (16-15, 7-13) proved that they wouldn’t be put down without a fight during the first set, as the lead changed six times during the set and NU managed to slam down 13 kills, two more than Nebraska. With the score tied at 19, the Cats went on a 5-0 run, giving them a lead they would not relinquish. When Hannah Werth sent her serve long for the Cornhuskers, NU found itself with a surprising one-set lead.

Nebraska stormed right back in the second set, handing NU its most lopsided loss of the season, 25-9.

Ayers said the low score embarrassed the Cats and made them “really angry.” She said it was the only period of the match in which NU’s performance was lacking.

Almost using the second set as a chance to catch their breath, the Cats struck back with the first three points of the third set. The “embarrassing” score Ayers mentioned lit the fire under the Cats’ top attackers, freshman Yewande Akanbi and sophomore Stephanie Holthus.

“Our outside hitters were outstanding tonight: Yewande and Stephanie Holthus,” coach Keylor Chan said, “That was part of the game plan to really go over their smaller blocker.”

Akanbi would end the night with a career-high 20 kills to lead both teams. Holthus would almost equal that total with 19.

“We just abused the (expletive) out of their block,” Ayers said, “which it’s hard for other people to do because they’re so much bigger than us but the outsides did a great job.”

Chan said the NU defense was exceptional Saturday as well. He said the players behind the block made a tremendous difference.

The Cats had a hard time holding ono a 20-17 lead in the third set, but still clinging to a 23-21 lead, NU won the set on an error by Nebraska and an emphatic kill by Akanbi. The Cats would continue defying the rankings when they finally shut down Nebraska in the fourth.

“We just all came out pretty much and weren’t afraid,” Akanbi said. “We had nothing to lose. We just came out and played to win.”

Akanbi added that the victory was “the best feeling ever.”

When freshman Hannah Crippen sent down the deciding point to win the match, the Cats piled on top of each other on the court. With NU’s regular season now complete and its postseason fate uncertain, the players celebrated a momentous victory in what could be their final match of the season.

“I don’t know if you can have any more pride in what you do than what our team showed tonight,” Chan said, “and the character that they have showed throughout the year to know that they weren’t daunted by the challenge of getting better in the Big Ten. They just embraced it.”

The NCAA announces its postseason bracket on Sunday. Chan said that the Cats are a “long shot” given their five-set losses to Michigan and Michigan State last weekend.

Whether or not his team advances, Chan said that the one word which captures his feelings on his young team’s growth is “proud”. He said defeating Nebraska was the culmination of everything NU worked for this season.

“We’ve grown immensely and next season we’re going to do even bigger and better things,” Akanbi said. “After this season a lot of the freshmen have more confidence now playing on the court. We feel like we can play with older people now. It’s like an induction kind of thing.”

The win served as a triumphant goodbye to Ayers and teammate Mary Grace Gallagher, both of whom were honored during Senior Night Saturday.

“We’re going to watch to see if we make it to the tournament tomorrow (Sunday)”, Ayers said, “but even if we don’t, I couldn’t think of a better way to go out. This is just the best thing ever. I am so proud of my team and so thankful that they did this for Mary Grace and me.”

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