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Wisconsin volleyball: UW downs Huskers in four sets to earn share of Big Ten title

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After a poor first set, Wisconsin bounced back and can win the conference outright with another win tomorrow.

Wisconsin Athletics; @BigTenNetwork

You can crown them again!

The No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers (16-3 Big Ten, 24-3 overall) are back-to-back-to-back champions of the Big Ten after they beat the No. 11 Nebraska Cornhuskers (15-4, 20-6) in four sets (14-25, 25-23, 26-24, 25-18) at home to clinch at least a share of the conference title on Friday night.

UW bounced back from a slow start to the first set where the Huskers dominated thanks to strong serving and an offensive deluge early. Nebraska held a 15-10 lead at the media timeout and were hitting .556 up to that point.

Although fifth year senior Grace Loberg was playing well early, that was about all that went well for the Badgers. The Huskers extended their lead thanks to some incredible serving from Keonilei Akana. The Hawaiian had three of Nebraska’s four aces — Akana finished with five on the night — including the set point to help the Huskers to a dominant set one win.

In the second set, Loberg continued her strong start with two early kills in the second to give UW a 7-5 lead. Loberg finished with 14 kills on the night and came up with huge swings throughout the match, as her strong play began to help the Badger settle after the rocky first set.

The teams were trading runs in a back-and-forth set before a timely block from sophomore Devyn Robinson gave UW a 22-20 lead and forced Nebraska to call timeout. Robinson then polished off the set with a kill as the Iowa-native had a solid night with 10 kills and seven blocks.

Robinson’s performance helped UW out-block Nebraska 14-10, and the Badger block started to help cut Nebraska’s red-hot hitting percentage.

In the third set, the Badger began to get on a run with an early 8-3 lead after an ace from fifth year defensive specialist Gio Civita. The Huskers hung in and chipped away at the lead before another run thanks to serving by Keonilei Akana gave them a 15-14 lead. A timely block from the Badgers swung back the lead for UW at 19-18 before the teams traded points to reach a 24-24 tie.

The seniors then took over for Wisconsin, as Dana Rettke had a kill to give UW a set point and Loberg shut the door with a thundering kill to give the Badgers a 26-24 set win and an important 2-1 lead in the match.

Fifth year setter Sydney Hilley made history during the third set, as she became the all-time leader in assists in Badger history.

In the fourth set, Devyn Robinson helped UW off to an early 5-1 advantage with back-to-back kills before Dana Rettke hit another level.

The four-time First Team All-American honoree had eight kills in the final set as she hammered away at the Huskers. Rettke’s skill is obvious, but her energy and enthusiasm is what really makes her a special player. The announcer said she might lead the country in fist pumps, and it is clear she helps bring the juice for the Wisconsin team. She also finished the night with a match-leading 18 kills and seven blocks while hitting .484.

Rettke had kill No. 16 to make the match 20-14 before another fifth year player wrote her name in the match. Gio Civita went back to serve and had back-to-back aces to put the dagger into the Huskers’ title hopes. The Italian, who is playing on a torn ACL and coming back from a separate ankle injury — helped UW to a 23-15 lead in the closer with the serving, but also had 11 digs and steady passing throughout the night.

Of course, fifth year libero Lauren Barnes helped keep a no-fly zone in the back row with 22 digs as UW held Nebraska to just .065 hitting in the final set and .168 throughout the match.

With the win, the Badgers have won seven in a row against the Huskers, with their last loss coming in September 2017. This match also happened to be career win No. 500 for head coach Kelly Sheffield. Wisconsin also can clinch an outright Big Ten title with a win against Indiana tomorrow or a Nebraska loss to Purdue.

Although winning three straight conference titles in the toughest conference for volleyball in the country is a big deal, we all know from the players’ and coaches’ comments there is still work to be done. Wisconsin’s conference title and dominant win against the Huskers will help add to UW’s resume, who might earn a top-four seed that would mean a road to the final four that winds through the Wisconsin Field House.

There is a lot to be decided still, but the title win and win streak against Nebraska will surely be savored for a moment. Then, it’s back to business as Wisconsin hosts Indiana Saturday night at the Field House at 8:00 p.m. CT That’s where they will celebrate the seniors who have won three-straight Big Ten titles.