Nebraska rallies from 0-2 to beat Illinois, will play Stanford for NCAA title

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NCAA semifinals 12/13/2018
Ali Bastianelli, left, of Illinois blocks the tip attempt of Nebraska setter Nicklin Hames/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

MINNEAPOLIS — For the fourth year in a row, the NCAA title will go to either Nebraska or Stanford.

Mikaela Foecke’s off-balance kill late Thursday night capped the Huskers’ comeback after being down 0-2 to Big Ten rival Illinois. Foecke’s 19th kill of the match in the Target Center gave Nebraska a 22-25, 16-25, 25-23, 25-20, 15-11 victory in the second NCAA Division I Women’s Championship national semifinal.

“This was another Big Ten battle. This is what it was like every week in the Big Ten,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “Illinois is a great team. I mean, they brought out the best in us. I think we brought out the best in them. It was a very entertaining, fun match to watch, whether you’re a fan, a coach, a player.”

Defending-champion Nebraska, who won in 2015 and last year, will play Stanford on Saturday night. Stanford, which won it all in 2016, dismantled BYU 25-15, 25-15, 25-18.

Stanford (33-1), which went unbeaten in winning the Pac-12 title, won its 31st match in a row after losing to BYU in five in Provo on August 31. BYU saw its season end 31-2 as the Cougars hit minus .026. BYU’s previous low hitting percentage was .158 in their only other loss, a sweep in the last West Coast Conference match of the season.

“What we did defensively against them tonight, we didn’t expect that,” Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “We thought we could play some pretty good defense, but didn’t expect to hold them to negative.”

BYU hit minus .132 in the first set and was hitting minus .107 after two sets. The Cougars got out-blocked 17-4, which included 14 blocks by Stanford senior middle Tami Alade, one solo. Alade came into the match as the NCAA leader this season at 1.80 blocks per set.

“I’ve been waiting for this game all year, basically,” Alade said. “It was a nice redemption tour. At the same time I know it’s my last opportunity. The mantra going through my head, fight for your right to play with this team as long as possible.

“I think we did that because we got to play in the last possible game we have for the season. So I’m really excited we were able to finish where we wanted. But I think the cherry on the cake would be to win the national championship.”

Stanford, which hit .281, had 12 kills from Kathryn Plummer and 11 from Audriana Fitzmorris, the Cardinal’s 6-foot-6 pin hitters. Fitzmorris had nine blocks. Holly Campbell had four kills with no errors in seven swings to hit .571 and had three blocks. And libero Morgan Hentz was her usual spectacular self with a match-high 20 digs.

“There were no surprises tonight,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “Stanford is a great team. They serve tough. They have a big block. We weren’t serving tough enough for us to get any touches, get some blocks.

“As soon as our passing broke down in set one, it was super hard for us to generate any offense. We were trying to swing wide, go high off hands. The passing wasn’t there, the sets were off the net. We tried our best, but they took us out of our game.”

Stanford lost in last year’s semifinals to Florida and then had the previous match with BYU on its mind all season.

I’m really proud of the effort. I think for a lot of these players, it was nice to get back on the horse, if you will, in the semifinal, come out and compete, be the aggressor,” Hambly said. “We weren’t the aggressor last time.”

In the first set, Stanford fell behind early, rallied, and then broke a 13-13 tie with a 9-0 run. Roni Perry-Jones led BYU with four kills but hit .000. In the second set, it was all Stanford. Jones-Perry had one more kill in the second. Heather Gneiting also had five kills.

Stanford’s Jenna Gray goes all out for a ball against BYU/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Jones-Perry led BYU with 12 kills but hit minus .114.

“They were a really good block,” Jones-Perry said. “So it was tough. They did a really nice job.”

Gneiting and the other BYU middle, Kennedy Eschenberg, finished with five kills each and Madi Robinson had four. BYU was playing without its second-leading attacker, McKenna Miller, who was lost late in the season to a knee injury.

“We didn’t pass well in that match,” Hambly said. “I think mostly it was a good defensive effort. We took things away from them.

“Losing Miller for them makes them very different. They have to rely on Jones-Perry a lot. It makes it a little bit easier to key on them, especially if they’re off the net. I thought it was a good defensive effort.

“I thought we did a nice job with the block. Morgan was great. We executed the game plan well. But I think we can be better offensively.”

Stanford, tied with Penn State with seven national titles, won it all in 2016. The Cardinal also won NCAA crowns in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001, and 2004.

Olmstead became just the fourth woman to coach in the final four.

BYU was back in the final four for the first time since 2014, when the Cougars lost to Penn State in the championship match. The school went to the 1993 national semifinals when coach Elaine Michaelis became the second woman to do so. Cathy George took Texas-Arlington in 1989, while the only other woman to coach a team in the final four is Florida’s Mary Wise, whose Gators lost to Nebraska in last year’s title match.

Nebraska improved to 29-6, while Illinois’ season ended 32-4. This was their third meeting of the year after Illinois and Nebraska won in four sets on the other’s home court.

Foecke hit .300 after making four errors in 50 swings. She added four assists, two aces, 11 digs and two blocks.

“The first game was definitely a bit down. Obviously we didn’t play our best level the first two sets by any means,” Foecke said. “I think we really made an uphill improvement. It was really hard. Obviously we struggled throughout different points, throughout all sets. I think in the fifth set, there was a lot of energy from both teams, from the crowd. It was just really fun to play in.”

Teammate Lexi Sun also had 19 kills, but hit .196. She had two assists, 12 digs and a block. Jazz Sweet had nine kills and hit .350 to go with a block. Libero Kenzie Maloney had 20 digs, 10 assists and an ace. Megan Miller added 19 digs, three assists and an ace, but also had four of her team’s 12 errors.

The fifth set was tied 11-11 when Sweet’s kill made it 12-11 Nebraska. Then Foecke appeared to hit a ball out of bounds, but coach John Cook challenged that there was a touch. He won the challenge. Maloney followed with an ace and then Foecke ended it.

Jacqueline Quade led Illinois with 28 kills hitting .237 after taking 76 swings. She had two aces and 10 digs. Beth Prince had 10 kills, six digs and three blocks. Morgan O’Brien had 27 digs, four assists and an ace. Taylor Kuper had 14 digs but three of her team’s 10 serving errors.

“I would say coming out really strong the first two sets as a team is something you always really like to see, coming out pretty fast,” Quade said. “They definitely took a hit back at us in the third and fourth. Props to them for that. I think we managed it pretty well. We were still doing really good things throughout the match. Just really came down to that fifth set, and they got us in that.”

Both Nebraska setter Nicklin Hames and Illinois setter Jordyn Poulter had 46 assists. Hames had five kills, an ace and 19 digs, while Poulter had two kills, four aces, 14 digs and three blocks. Illinois finished with 9.5 blocks, while Nebraska had just four.

“Nebraska is a great team,” said second-year Illinois coach Chris Tamas, who was an assistant to Cook two years ago. “First-hand knowledge of how they train, how hard they work, as well. I coached a couple of them for multiple years. We knew we were going to have to expect a battle. We knew they weren’t going away after we won the first two sets.

“Thought we could hopefully close out that third set. They caught a couple big plays on us, kind of took control of the match in the fourth set. Back and forth there in the fifth. It’s what we’re used to in the Big Ten.”

Illinois, seeking its first NCAA title, advanced to the 1988 national semifinals and lost in the 2011 NCAA-title match to UCLA. Nebraska is in its fourth consecutive final four. The Huskers won it all in 1995, 2000, 2006, 2015, and 2017.

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