In a thrilling and hard-fought Big Ten battle, No. 5 Wisconsin (0-1 Big Ten, 9-1 overall) was pushed to the limit in its conference opener at the Field House Friday night, taking on a Michigan State team (1-0 Big Ten, 8-2) that refused to be overwhelmed by an elite school seeking to defend its home floor. Determined to hold their own, the Spartans hung with the Badgers serve for serve and rally after rally, unrelenting in the pursuit of an upset.
And, to the dismay of the home crowd, Sparty found a way to pull it off. Taking the match to a grueling five sets, MSU, after allowing the Badgers to keep themselves alive with a victory in the fourth frame, managed to close it out a set later, as Wisconsin suffered its first loss of the 2017 season by a score of 25-14, 18-25, 22-25, 25-22, 13-15.
Although the Badgers fell short, the players can at least take some solace in knowing how resilient they played, scratching and clawing their way back into contention on multiple occasions. After capturing the opening set, UW dropped back-to-back sets and found itself down 2-1 and on the brink of defeat. In the fourth, however, the team rallied, bouncing back with a win which gave way to a dramatic finale, one they would ultimately lose but never gave up on
“It was a fun match to be a part of,” head coach Kelly Sheffield said. “The results are frustrating, but I loved being in the timeouts with these guys.
“I loved looking in their eyes. You look at them when we’re down in game five, in that second timeout that I called, and you are looking at every one of them, and every one of them believed that they were going to come back and win that match. “
Following Wisconsin’s success in the first set, Michigan State knew it had to make some adjustments. The biggest change for the Spartans occurred on the offensive end, dialing up the intensity in an attempt to expose a Badgers’ defense that had stonewalled them in the early going. The move paid off, as MSU hit at an impressive .379 clip during the second, compared to only .111 in the first.
“They started attacking the line a lot more in the second set and had a lot of success," Sheffield said. “They were really overloading our right side blocks with some quicks in the seam and gap and then going after the line.”
After the second set, the match grew even tighter. In the third, the lead changed hands four times and the rival schools tied it another 11 times. With a thin margin for errors, a string of ill-timed offensive blunders cost the Badgers the set. The team made seven attack errors in the set, a handful of which came down the stretch.
“Personally, I’m putting a lot of blame from that game on myself,” freshman blocker Dana Rettke said. “I made far too many errors at crucial points, especially in set three. The team fought so hard — so, so hard. That was awesome.”
Set four was every bit as close as set three. At 16-16, the Badgers sparked a 3-0 run that would provide just enough cushion to sneak by and force a fifth set. Senior hitter Kelli Bates recorded four kills during the third, while Rettke added six of her own.
In the final set, the Spartans raced out to a 9-3 advantage and looked poised to prevail convincingly. But Wisconsin did not go down easy, storming all the way back to come within three points. With the Spartans in front 14-11, the Badgers scored three unanswered points but could not complete the comeback. Bates, who did all she could to bail the team out by scoring on MSU’s match point, said there are lessons to be learned from this heartbreak.
“That’s the Big Ten — battles like that happen every single night,” Bates said. “I know that, and it’s my job as a leader and a senior to make sure that it’s okay when these things happen, but we need to learn and get better for it going forward.”
The Badgers will try to get back on the right track when they play Michigan in a Sunday matinee at the Field House. The match will start at 2 p.m.