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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Friday, June 21, 2024
Lauren Carlini wipes tears from her eyes as she says goodbye to a standing ovation from the Wisconsin faithful. 

Lauren Carlini wipes tears from her eyes as she says goodbye to a standing ovation from the Wisconsin faithful. 

Stunner in Madison: Stanford rallies back from two-set deficit to upset Wisconsin in Elite Eight

Badgers say goodbye to historic senior class

As the Badgers trotted off the court and into the locker room at the end of the second set of the regional final match Saturday night, the fans who filled the seats in the Field House roared with excitement, feeling the dream of a Final Four berth slowing becoming a reality.

Three sets later, the raucous atmosphere inside the Field House had been replaced with sobering silence, as the thousands of fans who once seemed so confident in their team struggled to come to grips with what they just witnessed.

After taking a 2-0 match lead, No. 3-seeded Wisconsin (25-8) dropped the final three sets of the contest, falling in the Elite Eight to the No. 6-seeded Stanford Cardinal (25-7) in shocking fashion, (25-18, 26-24, 21-25, 21-25, 9-15).

Wisconsin rolled through the first two sets, playing like clearly the better team. The tide started to turn in the third set, as Stanford came out with a renewed energy that would allow them to dominate the rest of the way.

Following the second set, the Badgers began to have trouble dealing with a Cardinal defense determined to comeback. While the Badgers had their way with the Stanford defense in the early-going, the Cardinal defense began to impose their will later on, holding a vaunted Wisconsin offense to an average hitting percentage of under .200 over the final three sets. Stanford stepped up at the net and took the Badgers out of their rhythm, out-blocking the Badgers 18-9 on the night.

“They turned up the heat on their defense, you know,” head coach Kelly Sheffield said. “That was one thing, you know, defensively they got a little bit better. I thought they were making some great; both teams were making some great pursuits. The block got going a little bit.”

Beyond the defense, middle blocker Inky Ajanaku proved to be a savior for Stanford, racking up a match-high 20 kills, 12 of which came in the last two sets of play.

Although Wisconsin was indeed outplayed in the latter stages of the game, Sheffield did not think it was right to put the loss squarely on the Badgers. Though obviously disappointed with the result, the Wisconsin head coach felt the match was a product of a hard-fought duel between a pair of heavyweights.

“I thought it was just two teams for two-and-a-half hours that were just laying it all out there,” Sheffield said. “Sometimes it was easy for both teams to score in a very high clip and then there was other times that it was really, really tough to score because both teams were just putting so much effort out there I'm not sure if it was necessarily what we were doing.”

For Wisconsin, the loss hurts on a myriad of levels. On a team with a host of talented seniors, the defeat not only brings the Badgers season to an end but also marks the end of a handful of extremely successful college careers.

“I'm trying to accept the fact that we've played our last match in a Wisconsin jersey and as a part of this Wisconsin program,” All-American setter Lauren Carlini said. “So I don't think it's really sunk in yet. I can't believe it's over.”

Even in its immediate aftermath, the players graduating felt a mix of pity and pride in reacting to a remarkably cruel defeat, attempting to balance their sadness and dejection with warm moments of reflection.

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“I really tried to enjoy it because it was my last time on the court with these people that I love so much," middle blocker Haleigh Nelson said. “So while maybe it seems like it was hard, it wasn't, because it's just so special to me to get to play here.”

While getting knocked out of the tournament is a tough pill for Sheffield to swallow, the heartbreak of losing in the tournament pales in comparison to the pain of saying goodbye to a senior class he grew so close with.

“To be with selfless people that give everything that they have for each other, for their school, for their sport. They get out of the shallow end and they dive in the deep end. They trust. They give you everything that they have,” Sheffield said.

“It's more than just on the court. It's being around them every day and the people they are. It's why you coach.”

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