Midway through the third set of a win over Washington State last Friday, Wisconsin senior captain Haleigh Nelson hustled up to the frontline and let her instincts take over. As an incoming set came careening toward her, the six-foot-three middle blocker ranged to the left, planted her feet and sprung into the air holding both arms up, putting herself in perfect position to swat the ball away as soon as it crossed the net.
That sort of toughness and tenacity was on display for the Badgers all throughout the first two rounds of the 2016 NCAA tournament. In a pair of postseason matches this past week, No. 3 seed Wisconsin (17-3 Big Ten, 27-4 overall) played with dogged determination on the defensive side of the ball, constantly punishing opponents with a ruthless physicality.
As the engine that has driven UW through the early stages of the tournament, the Badgers’ defense has dominated in every statistical category. They held Howard and Washington State to an average hitting percentage of below .100, while also out-blocking and out-digging them by healthy margins.
After lagging at times during the regular season, the Badgers’ defensive prowess has returned with a vengeance just in time for the tournament. A few weeks removed from calling the defense championship-caliber, head coach Kelly Sheffield continues to praise his team’s progress.
“Our effort defensively has been really high for the last month or so,” Sheffield said. “I think our block is getting better, and I think we’re making better effort plays in the backcourt. We’re a team that gets better every week.”
Sheffield isn’t the only one who has noticed a tangible difference on that end of the floor. His players have worked hard all season to become more formidable on defense, and All-American Nelson has seen the fruits of that labor taking shape during the tournament.
“All the work we had done in the practice gym is really starting to show,” Nelson said. “We’ve been working a lot on blocking and floor defense for the last month. Tionna [Williams] and I have been staying after [practice] to work on our hands on blocking. All the extra time the team has put in has really started to show in matches.”
While Wisconsin’s trademark defense has re-established itself in the postseason, the high-powered offense of Ohio State (10-10, 22-12) will come into the Field House Friday presenting a real challenge. Despite defeating the Buckeyes twice earlier this year, the Badgers know they cannot take their Sweet 16 opponents lightly, acknowledging that OSU’s depth and unpredictability make them difficult to game plan for.
“We’re preparing for anything and everything because Ohio State isn’t one of those teams that does the same thing every time they’re on the floor,” Nelson said. “They have so many weapons all over the floor that can get hot and have a career night at any time. We’ll probably just go in with an open mind and make adjustments in the game if things start going their way.”
Understanding that the tournament can be a pressure-cooker for any player, Nelson, a veteran leader on Wisconsin, tries to make the environment around her as loose as possible, contending that projecting an air of calm off and on the court may help ease the potential panic of a win-or-go-home scenario.
“I’ve tried to be a steady presence when I’m in and communicate and empower my teammates and speak encouraging words,” Nelson said. “I don't want them to feel like there’s any reason to be tight or tense on anything just because it’s a single elimination tournament. Our team plays our best when we play within ourselves and don’t get ahead of ourselves.”
Individually, Nelson’s goal for herself moving forward in the tournament is to live in the moment, playing for the present without pondering the future.
“The past few years I’ve definitely been a dreamer,” Nelson said. “This season, though, I’ve really just taken it upon myself to focus on the task at hand and not worry about a match that’s not even a guarantee. Having that picture of a national championship is always a motivation in the back of my head, but I’ve really tried to approach this season one match at a time and just get the job done.”