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MINNEAPOLIS — For the past two weeks, Nebraska coach John Cook kept saying the Huskers were the most improved volleyball team in the country from the start of the season to now.

Huh. Like there is some magic formula to determine that.

Nebraska was losing matches against great teams this season, but a loss is a loss. Prove it, right?

This week, the Huskers most certainly did, winning two pressure-packed matches against two great opponents in the NCAA Minneapolis Regional, and by doing so, are back in a familiar spot in the Final Four.

Sixth-ranked Nebraska defeated No. 14 Oregon 25-22, 25-23, 25-17 in the Elite Eight match Saturday.

Friday, the Huskers swept No. 10 Kentucky. So Nebraska (28-6) will take a 12-match winning streak into the final week of the college season.

And now, suddenly, NU is a team that wins close sets. After a season where Nebraska lost a few times in big matches because it couldn’t win close sets, NU won two very close sets to start the match Saturday.

Senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke led the Huskers with 16 kills, with 14 coming over the final two sets. She had a .400 hitting percentage. Lauren Stivrins had 11 kills and hit .526. Lexi Sun’s 10th kill of the match was the winner and sparked a familiar December scene of the Huskers streaming onto the court to celebrate.

Then the team, which suffered three consecutive losses in October — unheard for this program over the last 20 years — went to its locker room and celebrated.

“I’m not usually a person that likes hugs, but, man, we were happy and everyone was getting hugs,” Stivrins said.

Now the defending national champion Huskers have a chance to defend their title when they return to the Twin Cities in a few days for the Final Four. Two more wins and they’ll be champions again.

Nebraska will play Illinois in the national semifinals at 8 p.m. Thursday.

It will be the Huskers' fourth straight Final Four appearance. Nebraska had never made it to the Final Four three consecutive times before doing so in 2017, and now, it’s made it four in a row.

The Huskers had expected to play Minnesota in the regional final, but the Gophers were stunned by Oregon on Friday. Instead, all Nebraska had to do was beat Oregon, which defeated second-ranked Minnesota and its scary-good offense twice this season.

A bad October, when Nebraska went 3-5, meant the Huskers were the No. 7 seed for the tournament. They never got the really, really big win during the regular season.

With four freshmen and a transfer who play, Cook called this team a work in progress from Day 1.

The players and coaches said they had been improving, but the progress report was due this week. The Huskers aced the test. Nebraska has swept all four matches in the tournament.

Against Kentucky, Nebraska trailed big in the third set before ending the match on a 7-1 run. In the second set again Oregon, the Ducks took a quick five-point lead, but Nebraska won seven of the final 11 rallies of the set.

There were countless moments this weekend that showed NU's progress. Like in the second set Saturday, when Sun took a bump set from Megan Miller on an out-of-system play but still got the kill. Or when instead of firing way, and possibly making an error, Stivrins won the second set with a tip. 

The way Nebraska has been winning close sets now, and the confidence the players have, shows the improvements that were made, Cook said.

“We’re able to turn points when we need to,” Cook said. “We’re able to sideout when we need to sideout. Get an ace serve when we need to get an ace serve. It’s the belief and the level we can play at, and defensively, what we can do to teams.”

So about 12 months after Nebraska won a national championship during something of a rebuilding year, the Huskers will get a chance to do it again.

“I was thinking today that I didn’t think it could get any better than last season, but this season, seeing these guys grow and develop and overcome what we’ve overcome to get to this point, is pretty cool,” Cook said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Sports reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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