John Cook has said multiple times: it's harder to win the Big Ten than a national championship.
The Huskers, in front of a crowd of 7,052, were served a reminder Sunday in Madison, Wisconsin.
Two days after outlasting No. 7 Minnesota in five sets, the sixth-ranked Huskers were unable to keep the momentum going, losing to a hot-handed and experienced Wisconsin team in three sets — 25-19, 25-22, 25-21 — and likely ending NU's chances at a Big Ten Championship.
NU also saw its run of 25 straight wins in November end. Wisconsin has won five of seven against the Huskers.
The No. 5 Badgers, quite simply, were the better team, hitting .333 -- they hit .376 in a sweep of the Huskers on Oct. 5 in Lincoln. They had four aces, outblocked the Huskers 8-4 and outdug them 48-44. It was the first time this season that NU was outdug by its opponent.
"Wisconsin is just playing at a higher level right now than everybody else," Cook, NU's head coach, said on his postgame radio show. "Their serving and their passing and their defense, controlling it to the setters, is really good. That's the difference."
The loss hurts the Huskers' chances of winning at least a share of the Big Ten Championship. They're not mathematically out of it, but the Huskers' chances are extremely slim.
The Badgers (22-5, 17-1 Big Ten) now have a two-match lead over Nebraska (23-4, 15-3) with two matches remaining. Wisconsin will travel to Penn State, but it also has last-place Rutgers. Barring a major upset, Wisconsin will stay ahead of NU in the standings.
Penn State (21-4, 16-2) also is ahead of NU, which also had its seven-match winning streak halted. The No. 8 Nittany Lions will host Wisconsin and Minnesota next weekend.
One bright spot for the Huskers: They managed a split of a very difficult Minnesota-Wisconsin road trip.
Cook said he was pleased with the Huskers' outside hitters against the Badgers. Lexi Sun led the Huskers with 16 kills while hitting at a .316 clip. Jazz Sweet, on a limited number of swings (11), had five kills.
NU struggled with its block. After scoring the match's first point on a block, the Huskers didn't record their second block until tying the match at 6-6 in the third set.
"The only part that I'm disappointed with was our our block and our defense," Cook said. "We didn't follow the game plan, we didn't adjust and we pride ourselves on that. But their (Wisconsin's) speed and their control, they stress you and we didn't handle the stress very well."
That can be traced to the Badgers' veteran presence. Junior Molly Haggerty led Wisconsin with 16 kills, and junior middle Dana Rettke had 12 kills on 25 swings while adding five blocks. Junior setter Sydney Hilley (48 assists) got senior Madison Duello (10 kills) and junior Grace Loberg (seven kills) involved, too.
Wisconsin had the Huskers on their heels throughout the first two sets, but NU kept scratching its way back into the match.
A pair of kills by Sweet cut the Badgers' lead to 17-16 in Set 2, but a kill by Haggerty and an ace from senior Tiffany Clark helped the Badgers take a 20-17 lead. NU could get no closer than two points the rest of the set.
The Huskers took a 4-1 lead in the third set, and their best run of the day -- four straight points -- gave them a 12-10 lead. But Wisconsin scored three points in a row. NU tied the match at 18-18 before Loberg notched a kill and Lauren Stivrins hit a ball long. The Badgers took four of the match's final five rallies.
"That's a very experienced team," Cook said. "That team has been together for three years. We're going to learn from this and we'll get better.
"The difference is when they dig a ball, Hilley's been able to set anybody she wants. When we pass and dig a ball, it's a lot more rare that we can set middle, and that's the difference right there."
Nebraska hit .239 for the match. NU will host Maryland (Friday) and Ohio State (Saturday) next weekend.
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