Wisconsin faced their toughest competition yet in Monday night’s elite eight match-up against Florida, which lasted almost three hours after going to five sets.
The No. 1 ranked Badgers (18-0) ultimately defeated the No. 8 Gators (22-5) 30-28, 18-25, 25-22, 18-25, 15-12.
Not only was Florida the first team to take Wisconsin to five sets this year, but the 18 points the Badgers scored in the second and fourth sets were the fewest points Wisconsin has earned in a set all season.
In the very first set, the court became a battleground, setting the tone for the rest of the match. Despite an early six point lead by Wisconsin, the teams would be tied at 23-23, 24-24, 25-25, 26-26, 27-27 and 28-28 before an attacking error by the Gators and a kill by Molly Haggarty earned the Badger’s the two-point lead they needed to take the set.
Wisconsin lost steam in the second set, as Florida came out ready for revenge after just barely losing set one. The Gator’s persistent offense and dependable defense helped them take set two by a seven-point margin.
Set three looked more like set one. Ten ties and five lead changes exchanged hands before the Badgers came out on top. Set four similarly resembled set two, and after an early six point run by the Gators, Wisconsin was never able to regain the lead.
It all came down to the fifth set: A fifteen-point tie-breaker. The Gators led for most of the first half, but both teams were giving everything they had and the set was tied four times before a victor was crowned.
Senior star player Dana Rettke earned the Badgers the match point with her fifth block of the night. The overwhelming flood of emotions brought Rettke to the ground as her team celebrated around her.
“Our season was on the line,” Rettke said of the game-winning point. “It was everything we’ve done, everything we’ve practiced, everything we’ve been through. That moment was bringing it all together.”
Although the match was clearly a struggle between the two teams, both Rettke and senior outside hitter Molly Haggerty were adamant that the Badgers never doubted their ability to win.
Haggerty ended the night with a team-high 17 kills followed by Rettke with 16 and senior Grace Loberg with 10. Three Gators had kills in the double digits as well, including junior Thayer Hall who put down an impressive 23.
This match was the first time this season the Badgers defeated an opponent who earned a higher hitting percentage. Wisconsin hit a season low 0.153 (59 kills - 30 errors - 189 attempts) against the Gators’ 0.170 (63-31-188).
“It was tough to score and it’s usually not that tough for us to score,” head coach Kelly Sheffield explained. “We found a different way to win. A lot of time it’s our offense that hits at a pretty high percentage. That wasn’t the case tonight.”
Badgers who deserve honorable mentions tonight include senior Big Ten Setter of the Year Sydney Hilley who earned a triple double with 49 assists and 17 digs, and senior defensive specialist Georgia Citiva who had a career high 17 digs.
As previously mentioned, Haggerty ended the night with the most kills, but it was her leadership on the court that helped her team the most.
“Overall today Molly’s leadership was spectacular. I thought she had everything right to say in the right moments,” said Rettke.
The Badgers don’t have too long to celebrate their well-deserved victory before getting back to business. Thursday night the team will take on the No. 4 Texas Longhorns in the Final Four as the tournament continues in Omaha, Nebraska.