OMAHA, NE—It was just like old times Thursday.
That was great for Nebraska, terrible for Kansas. The Cornhuskers (31-4) beat the Jayhawks 25-20, 25-21, 20-25, and 25-16 in front of 17,551 – the largest crowd in NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament history – at the Century Link Center in Omaha.
Nebraska is now 87-0-1 against Kansas, extending a streak that defies reason.
“That’s insane,” Nebraska’s Cecilia Hall said. “Like coach said, that started before he was even born; not sure that’s true.”
From 1975 through Thursday night, Nebraska hasn't made a mistake in 88 matches against Kansas. Not once has Nebraska had an off night, or had illness sweep through the team, or the bus break down. Nor has Kansas, which had three NCAA-qualifying teams each lose twice to Nebraska, and played out of its mind for one magical night.
On Thursday, the Jayhawks won a set against the Cornhuskers for the 19th time. One must look back a quarter-century, to the pre-libero, pre-rally scoring days of the sport, to find a match in which Kansas took Nebraska to five sets (Nov. 23, 1990). In the next 41 matches, Nebraska won three 33 times.
And what about that tie? It was Nov. 15, 1977 – the third year volleyball was a varsity sport at Kansas – when during a match in Lincoln, Nebraska won the first set 18-16 (sets were played to 15 back then) then lost the second 15-7.
“I was a freshman at Barton Community College, playing hoops,” Kansas coach Ray Bechard said Wednesday. “I’m not sure what was going on in ’77. I think they used to do multiple matched in a day, and maybe you played two sets. If you split them, you called it good.”
Three days later, Nebraska beat the Jayhawks 15-5 and 15-9; it was the fourth matchup of the season between the schools.
The streak would have at least been challenged the past few years had Nebraska remained in the Big 12. The Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten after the 2010 season, and the schools hadn’t played since. Kansas (30-3) is in its fourth straight NCAA Tournament, and made its first Final Four appearance.
The Jayhawks, whose only other losses this year were to Texas which will play Nebraska in Saturday’s championship match, beat another former Big 12 rival, Missouri, in this year’s tournament and eventually upset No. 1 Southern California.
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All that momentum couldn’t stop a familiar feeling.
But it wasn’t demons of season’s past that beat Kansas Thursday, it was Nebraska’s defense.
“We’re able to frustrate teams,” said Nebraska’s Kadie Rolfzen, who had 14 kills.
The Jayhawks hit .159.
“When you don’t pass the ball, you get very predictable,” Kansas coach Ray Bechard said. “[Setter] Ainise [Havili] will be the first to say she could have spaced the ball at times; we could have had better shot selection.”
And that offensive effort was despite Kelsie Payne having 22 kills and a .576 hitting percentage.
“And everybody knew we were going to her,” Bechard said.
Nebraska coach John Cook told his players, “Go for an ace when Payne is in the front row because we couldn’t stop her.”
Will the streak continue? There’s no guarantee the teams will meet again in the near future, but Bechard clearly would like a rematch.
“I think it would be a great idea,” Bechard said. “With the proximity of Nebraska, it would only make sense.”
Attendance record. Thursday’s record crowd of 17,551 was just a tad bigger than the last one to watch volleyball in Omaha. In 2008, the Final Four drew 17,430.
“Just coming out there in front of 17,000 people on your home court, that’s just crazy," Hall said. “When you get a point the whole crowd goes with you.”