In what has been a largely up and down 2017 campaign, No. 13 Wisconsin hit perhaps its lowest point of the season this past weekend.
On the road in West Lafayette, the No. 13 Badgers (8-8 Big Ten, 17-8 overall) fell to the Purdue Boilermakers in straight sets last Saturday, suffering their first sweep since 2016. For a team that has wound up on the wrong end of a number of close matches this year — plagued by four five-set losses — the lopsided defeat was uncharacteristic and damaging to UW’s hopes for a late surge heading into the NCAA tournament.
The Badgers biggest problem at Purdue came on the defensive end of the court. A usually stout Wisconsin defense was overpowered by a Boilers’ offense that hit .318 on the day, the highest percentage UW has allowed to any opponent this season.
Head coach Kelly Sheffield pointed to his team’s inability to contain Purdue’s prodigious frontcourt as a crucial difference, citing the 13-kill performance from middle blocker Danielle Cuttino as evidence of Wisconsin’s struggles.
“Our blockers were a non-factor on quite a few of those swings,” Sheffield said in his weekly press conference. “They weren’t up into space at a height that [Cuttino] was attacking.”
The Badgers’ block will be in for an even bigger test this weekend when they travel across the border to play No. 27 Illinois this Friday. Anchored by its star middle Ali Bastianelli, Illinois (9-7, 18-9) has tallied 58 blocks this season, tied with top-ranked Penn State for most in the Big Ten. Averaging north of one and a half blocks per set, Bastianelli is regarded as perhaps the best blocker in the nation.
“She’s got a mentality that she’s trying to stuff every single ball,” Sheffield said of Bastianelli. “I love that mentality with blockers. I love watching her because she’s almost offended if she’s not getting a stuff block. Some people just go through the motions and get lateral, and stick their hands up there, and she has the mentality to be fantastic.”
“They’ve got a system that their very good at,” he added. “There’s not a lot of one-on-ones. They're getting four hands into space an awful lot and they’re finishing their blocks.”
Wisconsin will then conclude its final road stint of 2017 in Evanston in a Sunday matinee with Northwestern (4-12, 14-14). Despite sporting a poor conference record, the Wildcats do make their presence felt behind the service line, where they rank fourth in the Big Ten in aces.
With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, Badgers’ senior outside hitter Lauryn Gillis says the team is feeling confident as they prepare for the stretch run.
“Yes, we need to get better, and yes there’s more growth to come, but it’s not a discouraging thing that’s bringing us down — it’s something we're using as a challenge to lift us up,“ Gillis said on the Point Wisconsin podcast earlier this week. “It get’s really frustrating when things don’t keep going your way, but that just shows how mentally tough we are and that we’re willing to bounce back and get in back in the gym the next day.”
The Badgers will take on Illinois Friday night at 6 p.m. in Champaign. Then, two days later they will be back in action against Northwestern Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m.