Nebraska has been the host for plenty of NCAA Tournament regional-round matches.
This year, the good news for the Huskers is that they are in the regional round. The good news/bad news is Nebraska (24-8) is playing in Lexington, Kentucky, as the No. 5 seed and faces Colorado (24-9) in the round of 16 Friday. The winner of the gets the winner of the earlier match between No. 4 Kentucky (28-3) and. No. 13 BYU (30-2) that starts at noon Eastern.
“We were there two years ago for the regional,” veteran Nebraska coach John Cook said. “For the older players, they will be really familiar and understand how it works. Playing second instead of first is a little different, but that’s part of the NCAA tournament. The NCAA is having a party and we have an invite. They tell us where to go and how to do it.
“It would be nice to host, but this time of the year there is a lot going on around campus. With us on the road, we can have that bunker mentality of no outside distractions. We are a pretty good road team and did a good job in the Big Ten to get through that gauntlet on the road. We are looking forward to this.
“There is pressure playing at home and hosting a regional. Kentucky is going to get more media attention, more requests for interviews and the pressure to draw a crowd. It’s a big deal. There are advantages and disadvantages to host.”
Nebraska is riding a 15-match winning streak into Memorial Coliseum. Cook, with Nebraska looking for an eighth Final Four appearance under his watch, was brief and to the point with what has driven his team to success this season.
“We are well-balanced,” he said. “We do all the skills pretty well and we have a high volleyball IQ. We play great as a team. It goes from night to night with who plays well. I think we have our whole team playing well and has been playing well. We try to be really balanced and that makes us hard to defend. If someone is having an off night, others pick it up. That’s how we try and build the team.”
To Cook’s point, Nebraska has five players with 230 or more kills. That group includes team-leader Mikaela Foecke, the junior outside hitter with 377, followed by senior outside Annika Albrecht at 330, senior middle Briana Holman at 257, freshman Jazz Sweet at 240 and freshman middle Lauren Stivrins at 232.
Senior setter Kelly Hunter averages 10.79 assists per set, while junior libero Kenzie Maloney, a product of nearby Louisville, Kentucky, where she was a product of Assumption High School and the KiVA club, tops the team in digs at 392. Albrecht has 298 digs, Hunter 265, senior defensive specialist Sydney Townsend 262 and Foecke 247.
Cook knows a familiar face sitting on the Colorado bench in Buffs assistant and former Nebraska assistant Lee Maes.
“Colorado is a solid team and has two very nice outside hitters, plus they serve and pass really well,” Cook said. “Lee is a former assistant here and I know they will be well-prepared for us. They’ve had some good wins and they just crushed Baylor.”
Colorado, which used to be a member of the Big Eight and Big 12 conferences with Nebraska, is in the round of 16 for the first time since 1997 and fourth time in school history. Coach Jesse Mahoney’s Buffs have played a schedule that has been loaded with tough competition. Colorado has faced Penn State, Illinois and Colorado State out of conference and won matches in the Pac-12 against USC, Washington and Oregon.
The Buffs beat James Madison in the first round of the tournament and then smoked Baylor on its home court to advance to the third round.
“We have gotten better every time out,” Mahoney said. “We went 5-5 in the first half and we still felt like we hadn’t hit our ceiling. We had room to grow, we had a team meeting and talked about what we wanted to accomplish in the second half of the season we really felt like we could get better and I think we did that.
“We went 7-3 in the second half and were competitive even in the three losses we had. We felt we had let them slip away as opposed to losing them. Coming off a loss to Utah, that season was over. Now we are focused on the next thing. We are excited to be where we are, but the Baylor weekend is over. Now we are focused on the next thing.”
Junior Alexa Smith was seventh in the Pac-12 in kills at 3.99 per set, while junior Frankie Shebby is ninth in kills at 2.52. Junior Naghede Abu owns the conference’s fourth-highest hitting percentage at .350. Setter Brynna DeLuzio ranks in the top 25 in the country for averaging 11.10 assists per set as Colorado recorded its best mark ever in the Pac-12 at 12-8 since joining the league in 2011.
“I think at this point the only pressure we get is the pressure we put on ourselves,” Smith said. “Not saying the pressure is on them, but coming in as the underdog is pretty fun. I think we have the opportunity to play really well this weekend and I think by the way our coaches prepare us we can beat anyone at this point in the season. We are excited for the challenge.”
Nebraska leads the all-time series 49-7, but the Buffs upset then-No. 1 Nebraska in Lincoln in 2006 and defeated No. 2 Nebraska 3-1 in Boulder in 2008.
Kentucky, under the direction of another former Nebraska assistant in 13th-year coach Craig Skinner, has made 12 NCAA tournament appearances in a row. UK had five players make the AVCA all-Southeast region team including seniors Kaz Brown, Ashley Dusek and Emily Franklin, sophomore Leah Edmond and freshman Madison Lilley. Edmond was named the region player of the year. She’s two kills shy of 500 for the season and is, by far, setter Lilley’s favorite option (1,138 swings at a .318 clip; next highest is Avery Skinner’s 787 attempts).
“We’ve had a lot of focus in recent weeks in practice. We’ve been on top of things,” Edmond said. “That’s trickled over into our matches.”
Edmond said the team continues to bring it on the defense and serving ends. Kentucky holds edges over its opponents in the aces, digs and blocking categories.
“We are a defense-oriented team,” she said. “The more the defense steps up, the more it brings our game up. Serving for us has been a huge factor with getting teams out of system. It gives the block a good chance to set the ball.”
Skinner told VolleyballMag.com the Wildcats will be well aware of BYU’s Veronica Jones-Petty, one of the best outside hitters in the country. She has 545 kills (4.82 per set) on 1,316 swings (hitting .286). McKenna Miller next for BYU with 862 swings, most coming from setter Lyndie Haddock. Skinner said it’s a given Jones-Petty will get swings but the key is not to let her numbers get out of control.
“You go into the match with a game plan and focus on our side of the net,” Edmond said. “We’ve played teams like this that have a dominant hitter and that experience has helped us get this far in the tournament.”
BYU coach Heather Olmstead said having a dominant hitter has been a positive for the team all season.
“We’ve done a great job all year with it,” she said. “Everybody knows Veronica takes her swings. We will set her no matter what, but we have other options we feel comfortable with. We have the ability to get other kids going. We are going to stick with what we do well. Ronnie is playing really well. She’s not afraid to take swings that matter. That was evident against Oregon. They knew she was getting the ball and she was phenomenal.”
BYU is in the round of 16 for the sixth year in a row. As profiled by the website lawlessrepublic.com, just four teams have active round-of-16 streaks. BYU and Nebraska are tied with six each, while Texas is up to 12 in a row. Russ Rose’s Penn State team is in the regionals for a 15th year in a row.
“We’ve been working for this the whole season,” BYU senior right-side-middle Cosy Burnett said. “This is the time where things should be going right. Our offense is doing a good job and our defenders are doing a good job. It’s fun being this way and killing it right now. Kentucky is a good team. They were ranked high before the tournament and going into the tournament. It’s going to be a great matchup. We have to be us and do our own thing. If we communicate to one another and do what we do, all the chips will fall into place.”
Olmstead said her team has benefitted from a long, late-season stretch at home in Provo and knows Kentucky will have the same advantage Friday.
“We’ve been home for quite a bit the last part here and that’s helped us have some extra time to work on things such as serving and passing,” she said. “Both of those help offensively and defensively. You hit with a good pass and you have a good block with a tough serve. Both areas have been coming along.
“Kentucky is a great opponent. They are having a great season. Offensively they are a great team with a setter who runs the court well and players who are physical. We’ll have to have a defensive plan to slow them down and have a plan offensively to attack their defense. It’s a well-coached team. Skinner and his staff do a great job. They are at home and will be more than prepared to play us.
“We love this. We feel like we can take our show on the road. We haven’t lost on the road. We’re going to focus on the task at hand and right now that’s playing Kentucky in their gym at noon on Friday.”