After gaining a commanding two set lead, No. 3 Wisconsin (12-2 Big Ten, 20-3 overall) was driven to the brink of defeat Saturday night, needing late-match heroics in a decisive fifth set to put away the Purdue Boilermakers (5-9, 15-10) by a score of 25-22, 26-24, 22-25, 16-25, 15-10.
After grinding out victories in the first two sets, Wisconsin struggled offensively down the stretch, plagued by a spasm of subpar serving and attack errors.
"We weren't serving real well tonight,” coach Kelly Sheffield said after the match. “Our serving percentage was really low for almost all of our servers. That's an awful lot of errors for us without many points to go with it.”
The first set was neck-and-neck the entire way with neither team giving up an inch. The two schools went back and forth early, trading points until the score was 15-15. Then freshman hitter Molly Haggerty came through for UW. With back-to back kills, Haggerty led the Badgers to a 4-0 run that created some breathing room. Later in the set, with the score 23-21 in favor of Wisconsin, junior hitters Kelli Bates and Lauryn Gillis recorded the final points of the set with a pair of kills. The Badgers squeaked out a 25-22 win.
The second set proved no less competitive, as Wisconsin was forced to come from behind to prevail. Tied at 15 midway through the set, Purdue picked up kills from Faye Adelaja and Carissa Damler to take a three-point lead and force Wisconsin to call a timeout. With the Badgers trailing 23-21, Purdue committed back-to-back errors to even the score. Just two points away from victory, senior setter Lauren Carlini drove home a kill to set up set point. Refusing to accept defeat, the Boilermakers answered the Badgers on the following rally, squaring the score at 24 all. UW went up by one on a costly Purdue attack error, allowing senior captain Haleigh Nelson to seal the deal with a kill. The Badgers claimed the set 26-24.
With its back against the wall down 2-0, Purdue began to battle back in the third set. Trailing the Badgers 12-9, Purdue rattled off three points in a row, eventually tying the score at 19-19. Finally starting to build some momentum, Purdue allowed middle blocker Adelaja to get going. She eviscerated Wisconsin’s defense with a team-high 21 kills, three of which came in the last five points of the set. Finishing what Adelaja began, hitter Danielle Cuttino capped off the set with a kill coming off an M.E. Dodge serve to record set point.
Although Wisconsin stumbled in the third set, its worst stretch of the match occurred in the fourth. The Badgers started the set by digging themselves into a huge hole, gifting their opponents with four consecutive points by way of unforced errors. Purdue proceeded to open the flood gates, using a 7-2 run to widen the gap to eight. Wisconsin showed a glimmer of life late in the set, but the deficit proved too great to overcome, as Purdue coasted to an eleven-point set win and lived to fight for the final set.
In the wake of the fourth-set fiasco, Wisconsin appeared to be facing dire straits. With the set score in a 2-2 deadlock, the Badgers ramped up for the fateful fifth set, with either a catastrophic collapse or hard-fought win hanging in the balance.
After scuffling to a putrid .057 hitting percentage in the previous set, the Badgers snapped out of their slump in spectacular fashion. They carried themselves with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose, playing with a great deal more energy and intensity than before.
Wisconsin came out swinging to start the set, storming out to a 8-3 lead. Purdue responded to the Badgers’ quick strike with three straight blunders on its attack, adding some extra padding to the now 11-5 Wisconsin advantage. Seeming to sense victory was near, Lauren Carlini found Haleigh Nelson on a nifty feed, who drilled home a kill to put Wisconsin within match point. Then, Carlini dished it off to redshirt senior Romana Kriskova for a match-winning kill. Wisconsin pushed past Purdue 15-10 in the final set, hitting at a remarkable .323 rate.
By the numbers, Haggerty stole the show for Wisconsin offensively, notching 24 kills in her first match back from injury, while Nelson and Kriskova put away 12 and 11 kills respectively.
After dropping two straights sets, Wisconsin appeared reinvigorated in the fifth set. While the Badgers by no means played a perfect match, senior Haleigh Nelson loved the way they rallied towards the end.
“That's the team that we want to be every time we step on the floor, “ Nelson said. “It was really difficult to bounce back, but we did it together. I think that we will really learn from that, and we will come out a lot better next time right away."