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Wisconsin volleyball: Badgers march into Minneapolis and leave with a win

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Molly Haggerty, Dana Rettke and Sydney Hilley starred for UW in their 3-1 win over the Gophers.

Drew Hamm

MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. - The Border Battle was as intense, exciting and hard-fought as you would expect any meeting between Wisconsin and Minnesota to be. In four breathtaking sets, the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers (18-5 overall, 14-1 B1G) took down the No. 5 Minnesota Golden Gophers (19-4 overall, 13-2 B1G) 3-1 on Thursday night.

The Badgers hadn’t won at Maturi Pavilion since 2014, which also happened to be the last time the Badgers swept the season series with the Gophers and the last time the Badgers won the B1G.

“This is a hard place to come in and win,” head coach Kelly Sheffield said after the match. “Both teams played well, it was a high level match.”

With the 3-1 win, the Badgers now have sole possession of first place in the B1G and are in the driver’s seat for their first conference title in five years.

The match had everything you could want in a heavyweight fight between two of the nation’s best teams. The teams split the first two sets, with the Badgers winning set one 25-22 and the Gophers taking the second set 25-23, and then things got really fun.

“There are ballers on both sides,” junior outside hitter Molly Haggerty noted after the match and boy there has not been a more correct statement made by an athlete after an event than that ever.

After never trailing in the second set, the Gophers started off the third set on a 3-0 run highlighted by two dunk kills by junior middle blocker Regan Pittman. The 2018 second team All-American had been leading the Gophers in hitting percentage (.355) all season and Thursday night against the Badgers was no different. Pittman’s line of 11 kills - zero errors - 17 attempts gave her an astounding .647 hitting percentage on the night.

In the press conference after the match, Pittman was subdued, a stark contrast from her fiery on-court performance. After sophomore outside hitter Adanna Rollins gave a long response on how the Gophers were just trying to get better each match and losing one match to the Badgers wasn’t heartbreaking, Pittman only added “ditto.”

The Badgers, as was their M.O. for the entire evening, battled back in the third set and eventually took their first lead since winning the first set, 6-5, after a big kill by junior Grace Loberg.

Loberg had an effective match, hitting .356 on 19 kills - three errors - 45 attempts, but she was overshadowed by middle blocker Dana Rettke (21-4-49, .347) and a monstrous performance from Haggerty (24-5-47, .404). The 24 kills led all players in the game.

The success of those hitters can be mainly attributed to the all over the court presence of junior All-American setter Sydney Hilley. Hilley ended the match with a mind-bending 78 assists, shattering her previous career-high of 61. She also chipped in elsewhere with two kills, four blocks and six digs.

“I’m as confident as I’ve ever been,” Haggerty said in her postgame comments. “Syd (Sydney Hilley) had confidence setting me.”

“Her game was great. She kept us in system with her passing and hit with confidence and range,” Sheffield said about Haggerty. “Molly (Haggerty) was chirping more than I’ve seen her do in a long time, she had a lot of swagger out there tonight.”

Every time Wisconsin needed a big kill, Haggerty was there. The set-winning kill in the third set? Haggerty. Set saving kill in the fourth set to make it 27-27? Haggerty. The match-winning kill in the fourth set? Take a guess.

The third set went back and forth and featured 14 ties, three lead changes and one t-shirt sweat through by yours truly.

It took the Badgers a while to beat back the Gophers, as they needed four set points in the third set to eventually win 30-28 and then, after being up 21-15, needed two match points to win the fourth set 29-27.

The fourth set featured a number of service errors that allowed the Gophers to hang around and the Badgers had 13 (to only four by Minnesota) in the match overall. When asked about what could be done to clean that up heading into their next game, Sheffield said “you can make errors of aggression but how do you bounce back?”

“The errors magnify when it is so close,” Sheffield added.

According to the UWBadgers.com recap from the match, “Wisconsin recorded a season-high 82 kills, a school record under 25-point rally scoring. The Badgers also scored a school-record 95.0 points.”

There were so many impressive performances during this game I don’t even know where to put this stat, so it goes right here! Senior Tiffany Clark had a team-high 23 digs, her sixth straight match in double figures.

After eight straight losses to their rivals, the Badgers have now won two in a row and have a pair of manageable games on the docket before No. 6 Nebraska and No. 8 Penn State come calling.

The Badgers are back on the court, and at home for the first time in five matches, Saturday night against Michigan State. First serve is at 7 p.m. CT on BTN+.