Emotional, but confident, Tionna Willams leads Wisconsin to sixth-straight Sweet Sixteen

Senior Tionna Williams received a standing ovation from the crowd after what was likely her last game at the UW Fieldhouse

Image By: Brandon Moe

Head Coach Kelly Sheffield was unsure how his team would deal with an athletic Pepperdine team Friday night.

Much to his delight, the Badgers (15-5 Big Ten, 24-6 overall) were ready for the Waves' attack, beating Pepperdine (14-4 WCC, 22-9) 25-16, 25-12, 15-25, 25-13 to advance to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

If Sheffield entered the game uncertain of how his team would gameplan for Pepperdine’s unique serving style, Wisconsin answered any questions quickly in the first set. The Badgers employed a very balanced attack to begin the match, getting four or more kills from junior Madison Duello and sophomores Molly Haggerty and Grace Loberg in the opening frame.

After taking the first two sets, the Badgers were dealt a gut punch with a strong third set from Pepperdine. The Wave dominated the pace for the entire frame, winning 25-15 to stop Wisconsin's momentum. The loss snapped a streak of six consecutive sets won for the Badgers.

“In the third set, they’re fighting for their season right there,” senior middle blocker Tionna Williams said. “I feel like they started to pick up on what we’re doing offensively. Kudos to them for figuring stuff out, but everyone’s going to fight for their season.”

Wisconsin was fighting just as hard, and put together a strong fourth set to put the match away. A whole-group effort led to 18 fourth-set kills and an eventual 25-13 win to send the Wave crashing back to the shore. Sophomore setter Sydney Hilley, who compiled 48 assists in the victory and led the team with 19 digs, said team chemistry was a huge factor in the set victory.

“I thought our passers did a great job against their servers,” Hilley said. “All of my hitters I had so much trust in. They were all being aggressive and smart, and that’s when you know everything’s clicking. Everyone did their job.”

Barring an upset of third-seeded Illinois, Friday marked the final match at home for the leader Williams, and she did not disappoint in her last time on court. Williams led the team with 14 kills on an efficient .458 hitting percentage. The senior was noticeably emotional after the victory, but said she was excited for what lays ahead for the team in the coming weeks.

“It was incredible knowing that this was my last match in the Field House,” Williams said. “It’s incredible the amount of support I’ve had here over the last four years, and just being able to share this moment going to the Sweet Sixteen again with my teammates is incredible.”

As competition becomes stiffer, Hilley believes the strong connection between Williams and her will be crucial in big matchups.

“This is the most confident [Williams] has ever been,” Hilley said. “I have the most trust in her than I ever have. We’re working really well together, and there’s not a better way for [Williams] to go out in her last match in the Field House.”

As the saying goes, on Wisconsin — to the regional semifinals this time. Wisconsin will face off against the winner of the USC-San Diego matchup next Friday, likely at University of Illinois barring an upset over the country’s third-ranked team.

With tonight’s win, the Badgers have now won seven consecutive matches. Wisconsin’s Sweet Sixteen bid is its sixth consecutive — and sixteenth in school history.

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