MADISON — The Wisconsin Badgers again looked impressive in the NCAA Tournament, this time beating the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (16-1 Atlantic Sun, 27-6 overall) in the second round in straight sets (25-17, 25-20, 25-15) to advance to the Sweet 16.
If the story on Friday for Wiscosnin was the play of the middle blockers, today the outside hitters were on fire, starting with fifth year Grace Loberg. FGCU was keeping the first set tight for a moment, but Loberg fired back-to-back kills to put UW up 10-7. At that point, the super senior had five kills before finishing with six in just the first set.
The fifth year senior finished with a match-high 15 kills and only two errors — from just two blocks in the third set — to hit .542 on the night. Loberg said although she has been on a bit of a roll, she and the rest of the Badgers are making sure to keep focused on the moment.
“We’re just trying to stay in the present,” Loberg said. “I think we’ve been doing a really good job with that, and I think that’s going to continue to help us throughout this postseason.”
Freshman Julia Orzoł also looked good early on, using her shots creatively to terminate the points. She rattled off three straight kills by herself and gave the Badgers a 19-12 lead that sparked the eventual first set victory.
The Polish freshman went through a tougher spell as far as efficiency in the middle of the season after a brilliant start. But after a night where she hit for 12 kills and just one error to hit .611, she said she was working on adding other options in her game.
“At the beginning it was easier because nobody knew me here,” Orzoł said. “You have to make adjustments and you have to add to your attacking repertoire everyday.”
The left side for Wisconsin was the trick on offense tonight, something Florida Gulf Coast head coach Matt Botsford said he would have wanted. It just so happened that Loberg and Orzoł — who head coach Kelly Sheffield called “Thunder and Lightning” — had their best match together of the season.
“As a dynamic duo, I thought they were awfully good,” Sheffield said.
Coming into the match, FGCU was one of the best defensive teams in the country in terms of hitting percentage. However, Wisconsin had their most efficient games of the season as they hit .455 on the night and hit .560 in the final set alone. Sheffield credited fifth year setter Sydney Hilley with a “masterful performance,” but the team captain credited the work of her passers who put her in positions that allowed the offense to be balanced.
“When we’re able to be really balanced, I think we’re really hard to defend,” Hilley said.
Hilley noted the Badgers quickly realized the Eagles were a “scrappy” team, especially defensively, and the second set also started out pretty tight at 11-9. But again, Loberg found a spark and a 3-0 run to put Wisconsin up 14-9 they never relinquished.
Libero Lauren Barnes had another good night on the back row with 18 digs including a couple of highlight reel plays to keep points alive for the Badgers. Wisconsin out-dug FGCU 46 to 27, and seven different players chipped in with a dig.
Wisconsin’s second straight sweep means they’re moving on to their ninth straight Sweet 16 appearance, where they’ll be at the Field House again. Kelly Sheffield said the deep tournament runs don’t ever get old, and this time of year gets everyone excited.
“Believe” seems to be a key mantra in the dressing room, where the players and coaches shared after the match they were inspired by the TV show “Ted Lasso” — Loberg had on a sweatshirt from the show with the word “Believe” on the back while Sheffield has a wristband that says “What Would Ted Lasso Do” with a goldfish on it. That spirit is something that will keep Wisconsin going in the dance as they look to once again get to the Final Four and even more.
See you back in Madison on Thursday folks.— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) December 5, 2021
(Happy Birthday to the best DOVO in the country Jess Williams. Had to sneak that in.) pic.twitter.com/JObF73ADav
“When you have a team just gets after it and works and a team that believes, man it’s just fun,” Sheffield said. “I love getting in the gym with this group.”
The Badgers will play the winner of the match between the No. 13 seed UCLA Bruins and UCF Knights, first serve is scheduled for 9 p.m. CT on Saturday. The Sweet 16 match will take place on Thursday, Dec. 9.