LINCOLN — There was nothing official on the line Saturday at the Devaney Center. No Big Ten title and likely no implications for NCAA tournament seeding.
But the breathless play of a bevy of All-Americans, and the noise of a season-high crowd, ensured there was no mistaking the match between Penn State and Nebraska as meaningless.
In a bout worthy of a Final Four setting, No. 2 Penn State outlasted No. 10 Nebraska 22-25, 25-23, 26-24, 26-24 in the regular-season finale at the Devaney Center in front of 8,561 fans, a record for the renovated building.
“I'm really happy with how our team competed tonight,” NU coach John Cook said. “We learned some valuable lessons going into the NCAA tournament. Our team knows we can play with anybody.”
Freshman opposite hitter Amber Rolfzen tied a career high with 16 kills and had 15 digs to lead Nebraska (23-6, 16-4 Big Ten), while senior Kelsey Robinson had 14 kills. Kadie Rolfzen had 12 kills and a match-high 18 digs for the Huskers.
Ariel Scott, the Nittany Lions' All-America opposite hitter, led all players with 17 kills, and Megan Courtney and All-American Deja McClendon both had double-doubles for Penn State (28-2, 19-1), which ended the regular season on a 19-match winning streak.
Courtney had 14 kills and 12 digs, and McClendon added 13 kills and 13 digs as the Nittany Lions won the showdown of the top two teams in the Big Ten by pulling off late comebacks in the third and fourth sets.
“It's always fun to play Penn State. We have great matches with them, and they're a great team,” Cook said. “Their experience, I think, showed tonight. That's why they won three of those games by two points.”
Nebraska led 23-20 in both Game 3 and Game 4, only to see Penn State rally each time. In the finale, the Nittany Lions ran off four straight points to lead 24-23 before a kill by Amber Rolfzen stopped the bleeding. But Rolfzen followed with a service error, one of 12 for the Huskers, to give Penn State its second match point.
Nia Grant got a kill on the next rally to seal Penn State's first victory in Lincoln since 1999.
The third set ended in similar fashion. Grant and Courtney teamed up twice to block Robinson, with the second stuff putting the Nittany Lions on top 25-24. On the ensuing rally, the Huskers looked like they would have a swing to tie, but Mary Pollmiller was whistled for a net violation to give Penn State the set and a 2-1 lead.
“They kept the ball in play, and we made some errors we weren't used to making,” Amber Rolfzen said, “but it was all about keeping the ball in play and being smart with what you get.”
Nebraska's 12 service errors were its second highest all season.
“It's a big crowd, nerves,” Cook said. “Penn State missed a lot, too, but we're at home. We can't miss that many.”
This was the only meeting of the teams in the regular season, but they could be on a postseason collision course when the NCAA tournament brackets are unveiled Sunday night. The Devaney Center will host a regional, and Penn State will be one of the four regional No. 1 seeds. Nebraska figures to be seeded outside the top eight teams, meaning it could be placed in the Nittany Lions' regional.
The bracket will be revealed Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
Following the match, Nebraska honored its three seniors — Robinson, Morgan Broekhuis and Hayley Thramer — in an on-court ceremony. Robinson said the ceremony was meaningful, being celebrated by teammates and fans after her transfer last winter from Tennessee.
“It was really special. Just, in every way, to have my teammates out there and play for a program that cares for you as a person and as a player,” Robinson said.
But the emotion came with the determination that her memories on the Devaney Center court would not end with Saturday's defeat. The promise of NU playing at home until a potential berth in the Final Four leaves bigger goals ahead.
“It's just sad to know it's almost over,” she said. “But not yet.”
Penn State (28-2, 19-1) ............................................ 22 25 26 26
At Nebraska (23-6, 16-4) .......................................... 25 23 24 24
PSU (kills-aces-blocks): Scott 17-0-4, Courtney 14-0-4, McClendon 13-0-2, Slay 9-0-5, Grant 4-0-3, Hancock 2-1-0, Prieto Cerame 0-1-0, Fuller 0-1-0.
NU: A. Rolfzen 16-0-6, Robinson 14-0-5, K. Rolfzen 12-0-1, Haggerty 5-0-1, Pollmiller 4-1-1, Hall 3-0-7, Keil 2-0-3, Lyles 0-1-0.
Set assists: PSU 57 (Hancock 49), NU 52 (Pollmiller 46). A: 8,561.