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Wisconsin volleyball: UW battles back to beat the Gophers in five sets

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A gritty, thrilling comeback by the Badgers keeps them in control of their own destiny for the Big Ten title.

@BadgerVB; Wisconsin Athletics

MINNEAPOLIS — In front of a raucous, sold-out, Senior Day crowd at Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis, the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers (23-3 overall, 15-3 Big Ten) mounted a massive comeback against the No. 9 Minnesota Golden Gophers (17-8 overall, 12-5 Big Ten) and won the Border Battle clash 24-26, 25-19, 25-27, 28-26, 15-12 on Sunday night.

“This was just an epic volleyball match. We told them in the fourth set, let’s not get too stressed about this thing, stay tuned in and stretch it out. It was two teams that were balling out. Had we been on the losing side, I would not change anything about the match. The locker room is just more fun right now,” head coach Kelly Sheffield said after the match.

The Badgers opened up just about as hot as you could be in the first set, racing out to a 6-0 lead and forcing the Gophers to take an early timeout. Dana Rettke was on point from the jump, recording six kills in the opening frame on her way to a team-leading 21, but Minnesota wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

Slowly but surely Minnesota clawed back into the set and thanks to a 5-1 block advantage in the opening frame, won the first set 26-24. All-American Stephanie Samedy had five kills, five digs and two blocks in the first set and uncorked a couple of howitzers late to clinch the set for the Gophers.

Rettke continued her excellent match in the second set, getting four more kills and bringing her block total to four. During the second set, Jade Demps had a number of kills to pull the Badgers back into the match. “Jade (Demps) was great,” Sheffield noted. She finished the match with a career-high 18 kills, many coming via swings from the back, and 16 blocks, one of three Badgers to record a double-double on the evening.

After a Demps error made the score 19-17, UW went on a 6-2 run to close out the second set and even up the match at one set apiece.

Wisconsin kept the momentum going to start the third set, going up 9-1 before the Gophers called a timeout. The Badgers kept Minnesota at arm’s length for most of the set, but the Gophers kept inching closer and when Minnesota fought off three straight set points to send it to extras, it seemed like only a matter of time before UM took the third set.

Thanks to two kills by Airi Miyabe, Minnesota won the third set 27-25 and backed the Badgers into a corner. If we’re being honest, I was a little concerned that Minnesota won the match right there. Wisconsin probably should have swept the Gophers and instead found themselves down two sets to one, on the road, in front of a fired up, hostile crowd.

Luckily, no one asked me for my opinion.

The fourth set started off the opposite of how the first three started, and the Gophers took an early lead at 7-3 and then extended it to 11-5 forcing UW to take a timeout. Samedy was cooking with gas and uncorking kill after kill from the right side of the court. She ended the match with an absurd double-double of 31 kills and 20 digs while hitting an efficient .312 on the night.

But then, every so slightly things began turning in Wisconsin’s favor. After the timeout, UW won a long point to make it 11-6 and I wrote “could be turning point (???)” in my game notes. It wasn’t, at least not right away, because the Gophers won the next two points, but it must’ve sparked something in Wisconsin.

UW won 12 of the next 15 points to tie the fourth set at 18 thanks in no small part to two kills by Julia Orzol and two massive stuffs from Devyn Robinson. Minnesota rattled off three straight after that and I typed “could be all she wrote” in my notes and, yet again, it’s a good thing no one listens to me. The Badgers went on to stave off three match points and then a monster Robinson kill gave them set four. There were seven ties, but only two lead changes, in the fourth set and I don’t know if I’ve properly recovered from how tense it was.

“They had three match points in the fourth. We talked about trust — trust yourself, your teammates, the game-plan. There were big plays on both sides of the net. Incredible defense, great shots,” Sheffield mentioned.

The fifth set was as tight as the rest of the match, with the teams trading points early and then the Badgers broke away only for the Gophers to catch them. Thanks to back-to-back Grace Loberg kills, the Badgers took a 10-6 lead in the deciding frame and it looked like it was over.

Obviously Stephanie Samedy, who Sheffield referred to admiringly as “Beast Mode” in his postgame remarks, had other ideas. She had a couple of kills and got the Gophers to within one point, 13-12, but a block assist by Sydney Hilley and Dana Rettke gave UW match point and then a Jenna Wenaas error clinched it for the Badgers.

This was a titanic clash between two rivals that what was everything it was advertised to be. I am thankful I was able to be there, even though my approved credential wasn’t on the list at the gate, and can’t wait until these two teams meet again next season.

Wisconsin is back on the court on Friday, at the Field House, against Nebraska...with the Big Ten title on the line. It’s, uh, kind of a big one, folks.

Other notable stat lines for Wisconsin:

Sydney Hilley: 65 assists, 16 digs, one ace
Lauren Barnes: seven assists, 25 digs
Gio Civita: two assists, 13 digs, one ace
Devyn Robinson: 13 kills, match-high .417 hitting, four blocks
Julia Orzol: 14 kills, 14 blocks
Grace Loberg: 14 kills, five digs, four blocks