Although they transpired under decidedly different circumstances, the story behind each of Wisconsin’s last two trips to the NCAA tournament feature the same exact ending.
A year after suffering a tragic defeat to Stanford in the 2016 Elite Eight match, the Badgers (11-9 Big Ten, 22-10 overall) once again watched their championship hopes collapse at the hands of the Cardinals (19-1 Pac 12, 29-3), losing by a score of 25-22, 20-25, 21-25, 19-25 in the Sweet Sixteen Friday night in California.
UW’s loss was underscored by its inability to slow down Stanford’s electric offense, a unit which hit an astronomical .436 on the night. While they managed to match Stanford’s vaunted attack with some scoring punch of their own at the start, the Badgers would cool down as the match wore on, shifting the onus over to a defense which looked overwhelmed for the majority of the match.
“I'm proud of our effort,” head coach Kelly Sheffield said after the match. “I'm proud of our preparation, I'm proud of our fight. I thought Stanford played an unbelievable match. It was two teams delivering blows.”
Central to the Cardinal’s triumphant effort was Pac-12 Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer. The sophomore outside hitter recorded a match-high 22 kills and also chipped in nine digs as she overpowered Wisconsin.
It was clear this match was going to be a shootout from the outset. The Badgers hit an impressively high .593 during the opening frame, as freshman outside hitter Grace Loberg continued her postseason scoring binge. Loberg, who recorded career highs in points on consecutive nights last weekend, provided an early spark with seven kills in the first set. With her team trailing 15-16 midway through the first, Loberg scored twice to put Wisconsin in front. The Badgers would maintain that margin until it mounted a 4-0 run to close out the frame and capture a victory. Lodberg finished with 20 kills, her largest total of the season.
“She kept getting better and better as the season went on,” Sheffield said. “She did what you expect out of people. At the end of the year, she got so good that she put herself in the lineup.”
In the second set, it was Stanford’s offense that took charge. Clinging to a two-point advantage, Stanford libero Merete Lutz notched three clutch putaways to increase the lead to 15-19. After Plummer piled on a few more points, Wisconsin responded with a quick 3-0 rally but couldn’t complete the comeback.
As Wisconsin’s attack stagnated following intermission, Stanford continued to pick up steam. Despite trailing by as many as four to start the set on just .229 hitting, the Badgers clawed back, trimming the deficit to 21-20 with an opportunity to seize control. But Plummer stepped up yet again, responding with three straight scores to stall Wisconsin’s resurgence.
UW’s problems only grew more pronounced in the last set, as the offense ground to a halt in the fourth. It hit just .200 for the frame and could not counter a Cardinal team that was only getting better. Stanford continued to score at will, leading by as many as seven en route to an easy victory to close out the contest.
While obviously disappointed with the outcome, Sheffield marveled at the growth he has seen from his young team.
“We have three freshmen in the starting lineup,” Sheffield said. “It takes time. We had different people in different positions than a year ago. We lost a lot of close ones early on as we were growing and battling. I really enjoyed coaching this team and we’re excited for the future.”
Stanford will take on the No. 6 Texas Longhorns Saturday night for a chance to punch a ticket to the final four.