No. 7 Lailani Dodson mid-leap as she hits the volleyball in a toe-to-toe game with Nebraska. Brendan Preisman / North by Northwestern.

There is a big difference between a team fighting through the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and a team fighting for a title. Northwestern (9-10, 3-6 B1G) saw that firsthand Wednesday night. Second-ranked Nebraska (18-0, 9-0 B1G) simply proved to be far too much for the Wildcats in a 25-15, 25-16, 25-21 victory. Without star outside hitter, third-year Lindsay Krause, the Cornhuskers relied on a committee style approach to get the victory. The team could, of course, be forgiven for their focus not being in Evanston. The Huskers will battle with No. 1 Wisconsin Saturday night.

The first set proved to be a quick summary of how the game would go. Northwestern took the first point after a block by second-year middle blocker Kennedy Hill before Nebraska ripped off six straight points, four from their own second-year middle blocker, Bekka Allick. Afterward, the game settled down a little bit. Northwestern clawed back at various points, but after a third-year outside hitter Merritt Beason-led run that pushed the lead to 14-6, the ‘Cats appeared to be in trouble.

That was the case, until fourth-year Alexa Rousseau took over. A kill and an ace from the setter helped the Wildcats slice the lead in half and force a Nebraska timeout.

Northwestern fans were able to make themselves known in an arena packed with red, but the run wouldn’t be enough. Thanks to a pair of 3-0 scoring runs fueled by Beason and first-year middle blocker Andi Jackson, the Cornhuskers took the first set, 25-15.

The second set started even worse for the Wildcats. An error-prone Northwestern squad let Nebraska jump out to a 4-0 lead, and that was all the breathing room the Huskers needed. At various points in the set, the ‘Cats did get within two or three a few times, but would never again get within one.

After a kill by second-year outside hitter Rylen Reid cut the gap to four points, Nebraska closed the second set on an 8-3 run behind some first-year setter Bergen Reilly offensive action. The 25-16 setback put Northwestern on the brink of their second straight loss, and their fifth this year to a ranked opponent.

The third set was a back-and-forth battle throughout. An error-prone Nebraska team couldn’t pull away, and 10 points into the set the score was deadlocked at five points apiece. The Wildcats continued to remain firmly in the Cornhuskers’ rearview mirror: after Nebraska opened up a 9-6 lead, Northwestern quickly rattled off a pair of points to push the deficit back to a point. Another three point lead a few points later was also erased by a quick Northwestern run.

The best run by the ‘Cats was saved for when it was needed most. After a third-year defensive specialist/libero Lexi Rodriguez ace pushed the Nebraska lead to 15-11, Northwestern had to use their second timeout of the set. Out of the timeout, fourth-year middle blocker Leilani Dodson and second-year outside hitter Averie Hernandez fueled a four-point run that tied the set at 15. Unfortunately, the repeated comebacks sapped Northwestern’s energy a little too much.

Nebraska quickly turned the 16-16 tie into a 22-19 lead thanks to four kills from first-year superstar outside hitter Harper Murray. Northwestern had one last run in them, and Hernandez cut the lead to just a single point after back-t0-back scores.

The ‘Cats, though, simply did not have enough to make the final push, and gave up the final three points to lose the set 25-21, and the match, 3-0.

One of the biggest reasons for the Wildcats’ loss was the lack of outside hitter Julia Sangiacomo. The graduate transfer from Santa Clara had blossomed into a star for the Wildcats, tallying 20 or more kills in four of her last five matches. With Sangiacomo on the bench in street clothes, the offense sputtered, and just one player, Hernandez, reached double-digit kills.

Another issue was the lack of attacking efficiency. While Northwestern is generally pretty successful offensively – the team’s hitting percentage of .237 is sixth in the Big Ten – the Wildcats managed a hitting percentage of just .141 against Nebraska. It was the team’s lowest hitting percentage since Oct. 6 against Michigan (3-15, 1-8 B1G). To make matters worse, Nebraska hit .395 in the match, leading to a kill margin of 45-26.

Despite the sweep, there’s a lot to be proud of for this Northwestern team. Nebraska had to make major runs in all three sets to afford themselves breathing room, and Northwestern did it all without their best offensive player. If the Wildcats’ offense played up to its usual standard, the team may have even taken a set or two. They’ll have a chance to get back on track when they take on bottom-dweller Michigan this Saturday night at 7 p.m. central.

Thumbnail by Brendan Preisman/North by Northwestern.