EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern closed out the 2011 regular season with an emphatic bang on Saturday night as the Wildcats pulled off an historic upset against No. 2 Nebraska 3-1 (25-20, 9-25, 25-21, 25-23) at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“We knew we had work to do and we were willing to put in that work,” Northwestern head coach Keylor Chan said. “This team really learned to embrace the journey and tonight was a culmination of all that work. I am extremely proud of this group. They were never daunted by the challenge and they really grew up as ladies tonight.”
Freshman Yewande Akanbi saved her top performance of her inaugural campaign for the regular season finale. The outside hitter powered down a career-best 20 kills to lead all players in the match. Akanbi attacked at a clip of .203 and also added three total blocks in victory.
The Wildcats came out firing in the opening set as Katie Dutchman hammered down a kill for the first point of the match. With the score knotted at 19, Northwestern went on a crucial 5-0 run to create some distance between themselves and the Big Ten’s newest member. Stephanie Holthus buried back-to-back terminations during the run and the 25-20 set victory was sealed when Nebraska’s Hannah Werth sent her serve long.
In set number two, the Huskers shook off the deficit with authority. The Big Ten champions scored six of the frame’s first seven points, which prompted Chan to signal for a timeout. The ‘Cats simply could not get into an offensive rhythm as they were hampered by 13 attacking errors. The 25-9 loss in set two was the most lopsided of the season for the young team.
The purple and white flushed the loss and came out of the intermission with a renewed energy. The two squads battled back-and-forth to tie the score at 16 midway through the frame. At that point, the Wildcats went on another critical 5-1 run, which was capped by a service ace from one of two seniors on the team, Mary Grace Gallagher. That gave Northwestern a 20-17 lead, but the Huskers would not back down. The Big Ten champions cut the deficit to two points at 23-21, but an error on Werth and an emphatic blast of the arm of Akanbi gave the ‘Cats a 25-21 win and a 2-1 advantage in the match.
The fourth set followed the same blueprint early as it featured a match-high 16 tie scores to go along with five lead changes. The final tie came late in the match when Werth put down her team-leading 15th kill to knot the score at 23. When the Wildcats needed to score they turned to the player they rode all night long, Akanbi, who scored on a kill off a feed from Madalyn Shalter. Then, Akanbi stepped to serve for the first time all night. The Huskers sent the ball back over the net and it was another freshman, Hannah Crippen who delivered the biggest play in her young career as she scored to cap a 25-23 win in the set and 3-1 win against the nation’s second-ranked squad.
“Our outside hitters were outstanding,” Chan said. “Holthus and Akanbi were terrific. That was part of our plan coming into the match and they executed so well.”
Holthus finished right behind Akanbi with 19 kills, while adding 16 digs for her seventh double-double in the last nine matches. Dutchman chipped in with five kills, while Crippen tallied four for Northwestern.
Shalter finished with a match-high 44 assists and 13 digs in the triumph.
The defensive effort was also critical in the upset Saturday night. Freshman Caroline Niedospial stood extremely tall in the back row as she dug out a match-high, and career-high 18 attacks. Northwestern’s other senior, Alex Ayers, tallied seven digs and an ace in the win. Kathryn Chrystal had a match-best five total blocks for the ‘Cats.
For Northwestern, the win is the third victory against a team ranked in the AVCA coaches’ poll. It is the first win for the Wildcats against Nebraska in their fifth meeting. Until Saturday, the ‘Cats had not taken a set against the Huskers in 11 tries.