Following the loss to top-ranked Penn State on the road this past Wednesday, Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield spoke very candidly about his disappointment with the play of the Badgers’ starting outside hitters, publicly criticizing the lack of production he saw from seniors Kelli Bates and Lauryn Gillis.
But the two veteran attackers took the scrutiny in stride and responded to their coach’s call to action with a much-improved performance Saturday night against Northwestern. Bates and Gillis combined for 20 total kills in the match, as the pair provided Wisconsin (6-6 Big Ten, 16-6 overall) with a significant lift in its resounding 25-17, 25-9, 25-16 sweep of the Wildcats at the Field House.
“I think that it was about time that a match was going to fall on the seniors,” Bates said. “It was a matter of time before Gilly and I needed to step up as leaders and to really take control of those matches that we can take control of. We took what [Kelly] said and we were able to turn it around and that’s what he expect from us anyways.”
“He [Kelly] expects more out of us, and that’s almost a compliment to us,” Gillis agreed. “So that’s the way I take it, knowing that I can be more and I need to be more for this team.”
The resurgence of the two hitters may have been the major story for the Badgers in their contest with Northwestern (3-9, 13-11), but it was certainly not the only one. UW boasted a highly-balanced and masterfully-efficient offense, posting a .387 hitting percentage as a team. Prolific scoring was complimented by a hard-nosed defense that was anchored by an impenetrable frontline which out-blocked it opponents, 13-0.
Although the Badgers proved overwhelmingly dominant for the vast majority of the evening, the beginning stages of the match forebode of an outcome far less decisive. Northwestern pounced on the Badgers to open the first set, grabbing the first few points to stake a quick 5-1 lead. The home team’s deficit remained at four until junior middle blocker Madison Duello struck down a kill that sparked a 5-0 run to put the Badgers in front. Clinging to a slim 15-14 edge, the Badgers managed to bust it open midway through the frame, scoring seven unanswered points to give UW an insurmountable 21-14 cushion.
Wisconsin continued to wipe the floor with the Wildcats in the following set. Bombarded by the Badgers’ block, Northwestern’s attack was repeatedly stymied by a defense that controlled the action at the net, coming up with seven rejections in the set. NU hit -.235 as the Badgers used a mammoth 10-0 run to end the middle frame as they went on to secure a 2-0 advantage.
UW has let a number of two-set leads get away from them this season, but finishing was not an issue Saturday night. Northwestern stayed within striking distance early but was doomed by a 5-0 Badgers’ run that that made the score 15-5 in favor of Wisconsin. After that, Gillis led her team to the finish line, recording three late kills to send the Wildcats packing.
“I’m excited about the rest of the Big Ten and the challenges we are going to face, “ Bates said. “This is the time where we need to really emphasize a lot of what we need to do. It’s in these games and in these moments right now.”
The Badgers will resume their homestand with matches against Ohio State and Maryland next weekend. Wisconsin will see the Buckeyes for the first time in 2017 next Friday night, and then proceed to play the Terrapins on Saturday. Both contests will start at 7 p.m. in the Field House.