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Wisconsin volleyball: Badgers show off grit with thrilling 3-2 comeback win over Penn State

Wisconsin did not play their best, but career nights from Julia Orzoł, Dana Rettke and Lauren Barnes helped UW gut out the win.

Tom Lynn

MADISON— The No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers (9-1 Big Ten, 17-1 overall) looked dead in the water, down big in the third set and heading to 2-1 down in the match with the Field House crowd — and Badger performance — falling flat.

But in an epic match that was the longest in Wisconsin history, clocking in at 179 minutes, the Badgers found a spark of life in the fourth set and clobbered the No. 14 Penn State Nittany Lions (7-3, 14-6) in the fifth set to win in a 3-2 thriller that spoke volumes on the team’s grittiness.

“We came out not playing our best volleyball and we grew together throughout that match,” fifth year middle blocker Dana Rettke said. “We found our groove, some strength and some confidence. I was really proud with how we all came together and came together as a team.”

After Friday’s impressive match on the block against Ohio State, Penn State came out and stuffed eight Badger shots in the first set. Middle blocker Allie Holland had five blocks as Wisconsin struggled to get past the block as the Badgers hit only .136 percent in that first set.

Despite the strength on the block for PSU, UW had the lead for much of the set and chances to close it out in their favor. But a 4-0 run gave the Nittany Lions a set point at 24-25 and they eventually closed out 25-27.

In the second set, sophomore Devyn Robinson was finding some success on the block, getting three stuffs early and the Badgers built a 13-7 lead. However, more errors allowed Penn State to come back into the game before some back-and-forth extra points. Sometimes UW had set point, sometimes PSU did, but eventually fifth year outside hitter Grace Loberg had two clutch serves that caused PSU problems and Wisconsin took the second set 32-30.

In the third set, Penn State jumped out in front to an early lead that ballooned to a 13-20 advantage. Jonni Parker found some rhythm for PSU with six blocks in the set while Kaitlyn Hord was pretty much unstoppable against Wisconsin as the middle blocker racked up 20 kills in the first four sets.

Strong serving from Lauren Barnes gave Wisconsin a life line as they cut the lead to 18-21, but Penn State eventually stepped on UW’s throat and also took the life out of the crowd.

That’s when freshman sensation Julia Orzoł took center stage.

UW Athletics

The Polish outside hitter had nine kills in the fourth set as the Badgers finally had signs of a pulse — hitting .474 percent and taking a 15-10 lead into the first time out. Orzoł felt she was doing too much, and just started to relax when she found her groove.

“I wanted to stop overthinking,” Orzoł said. “I wanted to go where the game takes me and stay in the moment.”

Orzoł finished with a career high 19 kills as well as eight digs. Dana Rettke led the Badgers with 24 kills on .512 hitting percentage, but a big story on the turnaround was UW’s defensive play.

Fifth year libero Lauren Barnes covered nearly every inch of the court against Penn State, tallying a career high 29 digs and tying a career high for three aces — with all three coming during crucial moments.

Sheffield said Barnes was playing “possessed” and her mentality filtered through to the rest of the team.

“She’s a fighter,” Sheffield said. “We’re better when she is fighting and bringing other people along with her.”

The team effort on defense was impressive. Fifth year setter Sydney Hilley was just as busy on defense as she was setting up Wisconsin’s attack, finishing with a double double of 18 digs and 65 helpers. Fifth year defensive specialist Gio Civita — in her second match back from a knee injury — also had double digit digs with 10 while Wisconsin collectively had 90, their highest total on the season.

Sheffield called the match a “slugfest,” which was evident from the first serve. Both teams were all over the floor — Penn State’s libero Jenna Hampton had 27 digs and seemed impossible to beat — and scraped for every single point. But Sheffield felt early on, the Badgers played tentatively and not to make mistakes instead of playing on “attack mode.” Orzoł said she felt that changed in the fourth set.

“We were in attack mode. We showed what it means to play Badger volleyball in the second part of the game,” Orzoł said.

In the fifth set, the crowd and energy was back for Wisconsin, who got off to a strong start with a 5-1 lead. As Penn State called time out, Jump Around blared through the Field House, and it felt like the arena might collapse.

But unlike the other sets, the Badgers did not collapse and stayed on attack mode — finishing off the Nittany Lions 15-7 and hitting .429 in the final frame. On defense, they held Penn State to just .050 in the fourth set and .053 in the fifth.

Wisconsin’s grit was highlighted by the final kill. Freshman middle blocker Anna Smrek started all five sets and had an up and down outing. She didn’t always look totally comfortable or in sync on offense despite chipping in with five blocks, but she finished off the match with the final kill as the Field House and Wisconsin bench erupted with likely as much relief as joy.

UW showed impressive mental strength to ride through that match. The Badgers will go back and look at the tape, and try to sort out how to get in “attack mode” and stay there for most of the match. But of course the team is eager to learn and get better, just as they did during this game.

“I’m [looking forward] for the things this match will bring us, the effect of the game,” Julia Orzoł said. “I think we can grow from it and learn a lot from it. Learn that even with a bad start, we are still Badgers and will still play our best.”