After another dominant season, including a 21-game win streak, the Wisconsin Badgers were eliminated from the NCAA tournament by the No. 2 Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday, after defeating No. 11 Penn State on Friday.
The Badgers hosted the regional semifinals and finals on Dec. 8 and Dec. 10. The winners of the two semi finals matches faced each other in the finals on Saturday in the UW Field House. Wisconsin clawed past No. 11 Penn State, while No. 2 Pittsburgh defeated Florida in four sets.
Earlier in the season, Wisconsin beat Penn State twice — the first time in three sets, then in five sets at University Park in Pennsylvania. Penn State forced this third match to go to five sets as well (25-21, 25-19, 23-25, 20-25, 15-8).
The key to Wisconsin’s win was their blocks. They out-blocked the Nittany Lions 23-9, with Caroline Crawford leading all players with a career-high 12 stops. On offense, Sarah Franklin and Anna Smrek combined for 26 of Wisconsin’s 49 kills in the match.
The beginning of the first set was back-and-forth at 12-11 until the Badgers pulled ahead 16-11. They extended their lead to 12-19, but Penn State didn’t go down without a fight. The Nittany Lions managed to bring the game within two points, but Wisconsin ultimately came out on top. A Penn State service error gave the Badgers set-point, before Julia Orzol put away the final kill.
There were nine ties early in the second set with seven lead changes. The Badgers took a three point lead as Penn State had consecutive attack errors. The Nittany Lions totaled a negative .064 hitting percentage in this second set as they struggled with only 10 kills and 13 errors.
To seal the second set, Penn State had a service error which put them down 0-2 in the match.
Penn State came ready to play in the third set and had a match-high .167 hitting percentage, which was enough to overcome Wisconsin.
This third set was a nail biter as the score differential stayed within two points until the Nittany Lions’ three point run made the score 15-12. However, Wisconsin rallied right back to knot the set at 15. Then just a point later, the Badgers pulled off a four point series, which included two kills from Smrek.
Wisconsin went up 21-18 but let Penn State right back in the game and allowed them to tie the third set at 21. A kill, followed by a service ace and another kill gave Penn State the set point which they were able to finish a point later.
The match was headed into the fourth set in front of a sold out crowd at the UW Field House. Penn State managed 12 kills with nine errors, while Wisconsin tallied nine kills on top of six errors — both teams hitting percentages were below .100.
This fourth set was just as tight as the previous few. The Badgers fell behind early on but were able to come back to tie the game at six. While the Nittany Lions controlled the rest of the set, there were five more ties.
Penn State led 18-13 and with four more kills, a service ace and two Wisconsin errors, the Nittany Lions claimed the fourth set.
With the home crowd advantage, the Badgers dominated the fifth set. Wisconsin led 6-1 and held a constant lead for the rest of the match. Devyn Robinson had three kills and the Badgers had two service aces, one by Orzol and a service ace from Joslyn Boyer to end the match and clinch a spot in the regional finals.
The Wisconsin fan base backed them up when they needed it the most. "We worked all year for home court and the people that were in the building tonight, they rewarded us back with their energy and how they stayed with us …” remarked Wisconsin Coach Kelly Sheffield. “It's so cool to have a fan base that'll do that when you need them and we needed them tonight. It was a team effort."
Regional Finals vs. Pittsburgh
Wisconsin took on the No. 2 regionally ranked Pittsburgh team — who had an overall record of 31-3, while Wisconsin entered at 28-3. Although Wisconsin won nearly every statistical category, they still fell to Pitt 3-2.
In the first set, both teams had their match-low hitting percentage. The Badgers trailed for much of the first set, being down 10-17 at one point. Then, with three consecutive kills from Crawford, Orzol and Smrek, the game was 16-19.
The Badgers went on a six point run by capitalizing on Pittsburgh’s errors and then with back-to-back kills by Smrek, Wisconsin took the lead for the first time at 23-21. Pittsburgh knotted the set at 23 but Wisconsin was able to pull through with the help of kills from Hart and Robinson.
The Panthers came out strong in the second set totaling 17 kills with only two errors, hitting a team-high .357 percent. The Badgers were able to keep the set close but never took control of the game. The Panthers came out on top 25-21.
Pittsburgh were able to hit an impressive, match-high 21 kills in the third set. The Badgers remained competitive, as the points went back-and-forth until the Panthers’ five point run made the score 9-6.
Wisconsin had two blocks, both with the assistance of Crawford, which enabled them to knot the set at 13. Following the tie, there were four more ties and three lead changes. Wisconsin was down by just one point, 20-21 but Pittsburgh won the next four of five points. Their final four points were four kills, two from their lead scorer Courtney Buzzerio who ended the match with a total of 18 kills.
Wisconsin entered the fourth set down 1-2 in the match but started off strong with an 8-3 set lead. The Badgers were able to keep a comfortable lead for the remainder of the set, their biggest lead by six points 19-13.
Wisconsin chipped away at the Pittsburgh defense and sealed the deal with two final kills from Hart and then Robinson. Wisconsin had the match-high .378 hitting percentage, totaling 18 kills with four errors.
The regional finals were headed to the fifth set.
Pittsburgh took an early lead 5-1 as Wisconsin struggled to find their groove. A Panther service ace put them on top 11-6, until the Badgers had a six point streak. All six points came from Badger kills, four of which were by Orzol and one each from Franklin and Smrek. Wisconsin took the lead for the first time since the first point of the fifth set, however, they were not able to hold it.
Pittsburgh took the last four of five points, all of which were kills. Buzzerio managed three of her team's final four kills and the match-ending kill assisted by Emmy Klika. Pittsburgh recorded seven kills and only one error in the final fifth set.
Junior Devyn Robinson had her career-high 21 kills with a career-high 41 attack attempts.
"I'm proud. Obviously it's not the outcome we wanted, Pitt is a very good team, but we went out swinging and we went out with our hearts on the court. I'm just so proud of everything we've done this season," Robinson said after the match.
Her and Smrek were named to the regional all-tournament team.
Wisconsin ended their 21 match win streak and wrapped up their season 28-4. They advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight year. The Badgers also set a season record for attendance averaging 7,761 per match.