LINCOLN, Neb. – It was a match worthy of the rivalry and it was a match that may be the biggest upset of the NCAA Tournament this year. The Kansas State Wildcats knocked off former Big 12 rival Nebraska in five sets to advance to the Regional Semifinals on Friday night in front of a packed house at the Nebraska Coliseum.
The Cornhuskers entered the tournament as the No. 2 overall seed and No. 2 in the AVCA Top 25 Coaches Poll, marking the highest ranked team the Wildcats have ever defeated. The last time K-State defeated a team ranked in the Top 10 was against Nebraska on Nov. 15, 2003, when the Huskers were No. 10 in the nation.
K-State (22-10) got the win 25-22, 22-25, 31-29, 22-25, 15-11 to best Nebraska (25-5) and keep the season alive. Head Coach Suzie Fritz echoed what she said after the first round victory on Thursday in that her team is playing at its best when it counts.
“I’m excited that we get to keep playing volleyball,” Fritz said. “We spent a long time talking about playing our best volleyball in December. I think we finally hit our stride and peaked at the right time.”
The victory improves K-State’s record to 8-1 in five-set matches this season and is the third time the Wildcats have won in the Coliseum. No other team has defeated Nebraska twice on the Huskers’ home floor. Fritz said she knows how difficult it is to win at Nebraska and to win long matches, but her team found a way.
“We’ve won a lot of fifth sets this year,” Fritz said. “I don’t have any magic dust I throw on them or anything. I just told them we’ve been in these before and we’ve been winning them all year and let’s go get one more. I like the quality of volleyball we are playing right now.”
Sophomore middle blocker Kaitlynn Pelger led the Wildcats with 22 kills as four players reached double digits. Pelger also added 12 digs to a double-double. Lilla Porubek added 17 kills on a strong .265 hitting percentage. Courtney Traxson tallied a new career high with 14 kills, and Alex Muff was one short of her career best with 12 kills. Muff also was solid at the net posting seven blocks.
After the match, Pelger had praise for Nebraska’s program and said she and her teammates fought hard for the win and did not let the atmosphere affect their play.
“I think throughout the whole match we stayed relaxed and stayed composed,” Pelger said. “Going into the fifth set we were still 100-percent confident. I’m so proud of all of us. Nebraska is so great. Their team is one of the top teams in the nation, and it feels so great to get a win like this.”
The Wildcats grabbed the lead early in the fifth set and never relinquished it. After a 3-0 run put K-State up 8-5, the Huskers never got within one point. Pelger took control down the stretch again with kills to give K-State points 12, 13 and 14. An attack from Gina Mancuso sailed long and gave K-State the win as the team stormed the court to celebrate the victory.
A number of Wildcats contributed to the win defensively with five players reaching double digits in digs. Libero Kuulei Kabalis posted 17 digs to lead the way, and Tristan McCarty shined again on the back row with 15 digs. McCarty was huge for the Wildcats serving as she posted three aces on the night and kept Nebraska off balance and out of system when she was at the line. Setter Caitlyn Donahue tallied her 15th double-double on the year with 65 assists and 14 digs.
Nebraska was led by Mancuso as she pounded out a match high of 25 kills and had 17 digs. Morgan Broekhuis joined her in double digits with 14 kills. Hannah Werth added 13, and Jordan Wilberger had 11. Five Huskers also reached double digits in digs.
K-State and Nebraska went back and forth in the first set with 10 ties and four lead changes, and the Wildcats held the momentum for much of the frame. K-State went on multiple runs and spread the offense around as setter Caitlyn Donahue distributed the ball well to get the win. Five Wildcats tallied multiple kills in the set as Nebraska could not key in on one player.
The Huskers hit .293 compared to K-State’s .222 in the first set, but the difference was at the service line where Nebraska struggled. K-State tallied back-to-back aces from McCarty to shift the momentum further onto the Wildcats’ side of the net taking a 20-17 lead. Nebraska failed to ace the Wildcats and posted five service errors in the opening frame while K-State had just one.
In the second set, it was again a tight battle with neither team able to build a lead larger than three points. K-State took the lead from Nebraska at 3-2 and held onto it for much of the set until the Huskers began to take advantage of a series of K-State miscues. A 5-0 run gave Nebraska a 20-18 lead, the Huskers’ first since leading 2-1. The Wildcats continued to hang around and make it difficult for Nebraska to put the set away with a pair of blocks, but a service error by Kabalis following by an attack error from Pelger gave Nebraska set point. The Huskers tied the match with a kill from Broekhuis.
It was another set worthy of the rivalry in the third as the teams again battled with 11 ties in the set. The Wildcats trailed 20-16 and were forced into a corner, but K-State responded well going on a 6-1 run to reclaim the lead at 22-21. From there it was back and forth with each team winning long rallies and coming up with digs when needed most. Nebraska fought off a set point with an error by Porubek, and the Wildcats would answer with a kill from Porubek on set point for the Huskers. Then the two teams traded blows until the Wildcats went up 28-27 on an error by Werth. Back-to-back kills from Pelger and Traxson would give K-State the set and a 2-1.
Nebraska jumped on the Wildcats early in the fourth set taking a five-point advantage quickly at 7-2 thanks to a 5-0 run. The Huskers continued to hold onto the large lead for some time before the Wildcats could chip away at it with a series of 2-0 runs. Then five straight points by K-State gave the Wildcats an 18-17 lead. Nebraska would rally from behind, however, and score four straight to go up 23-20. K-State pulled within a point but could not complete another comeback in the set.
The Wildcats advance to their third Regional Semifinals where they will be one of 16 teams remaining in the tournament. K-State will travel to Honolulu, Hawai’i, to take on Pepperdine as the Waves swept North Carolina on Friday night. The Wildcats are 1-1 all-time against the Waves with both matches occurring in the postseason. K-State defeated Pepperdine in the second round in 2000 and lost in the NIVC Tournament in 1995. The top half of the Hawai’i Regional will not be determined until Saturday. K-State is now 14-12 all-time in NCAA Tournament matches.