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Wisconsin volleyball: Badgers gut out five-set thriller against the Gators to reach the Final Four

The performance wasn’t always the prettiest, but the guts shown by UW’s seniors meant the Badgers won an instant classic.

Mark Kuhlmann/NCAA Photos

The Wisconsin Badgers had fewer kills, more errors, a lower hitting percentage, fewer assists, fewer aces, fewer digs and fewer blocks than the Florida Gators on Monday night in the Elite 8. The Wisconsin Badgers were down 9-7 in the fifth set — the first match all season UW was pushed to a fifth set.

None of that mattered in the end, as Wisconsin’s spectacular senior class willed the Badgers and dragged the team over the line to gut out an instant classic, five-set-thriller (30-28, 18-25, 25-22, 18-25, 15-12) to advance to their second straight final four.

Mark Kuhlmann/NCAA Photos

When Wisconsin needed the veterans to perform in the clutch, the four heroes — setter Sydney Hilley, outside hitter Molly Haggerty, outside hitter Grace Loberg and middle blocker Dana Rettke — fit the bill.

Down in the crucial fifth set, Haggerty had a solo block to keep the score within two. Moments later, a kill pulled the Badgers to 9-7. Freshman Devyn Robinson got a kill to level the score at 9-9, but this was the moment for the seniors.

The seniors who have often came up short in the NCAA tournament. The seniors who may have had moments of doubt as things were going poorly against Florida in the second and fourth sets — maybe thinking “here we go again” — pushed the negativity aside and kept plowing away.

The Badgers edged ahead 11-10 before it was all the seniors down the stretch. Dana Rettke had two kills, from perfect passes from roommate Sydney Hilley. In a game when the commentators questioned if that connection was still as strong, the two forced those cries into a whisper as the Badgers went up 13-10.

Grace Loberg — who uncharacteristically had as many errors as kills — made no error with a tool shot into Florida’s block to give Wisconsin a chance at a match point.

Nearly all the kills here — just like every Wisconsin game — were helped by Big Ten Setter of the Year Sydney Hilley. The incredibly talented setter missed her first minutes of her career earlier this season because of COVID. We don’t know exactly how she was affected, but Hilley has barely put a foot wrong since returning, and she finished with 49 assists and 17 digs in a match that highlighted just how much of a glue she is for the Badgers.

Fittingly, Dana Rettke put the final exclamation point on the W. The potential Olympian fit the bill — a towering statue of Athena on a block. The ball plummeted to the floor and the bench erupted in celebration as the Badgers will have two matches until their stated goal: a national championship.

Maybe there were some eruptions of relief. The Badgers had been pushed. They occasionally looked shaken or worried.

But in the end, the seniors dragged out a performance when it mattered the most. In the fifth set to advance.

Senior libero Lauren Barnes isn’t always mentioned with that specific senior class with Haggerty, Loberg, Rettke and Hilley.

Barnes’ job lends itself to that. It’s not tallied in kills — a definitive punch to the floor, a stake into the heart. Her job keeps the game alive. It’s erasing a perfect play in some ways. But the transfer from Minnesota had 28 digs and two aces, always making the smart shot and diving to the floor leaving her body to the mercy of the hard court below.

Mark Kuhlmann/NCAA Photos

In Italian soccer, they call the hardworking midfielders who never score goals the water carriers. Their job is to find the ball, and somehow get it to the glamorous strikers who get the headlines and plaudits.

Giorgia Civita was Barnes’ main defensive partner tonight. The Italian transfer from Wichita State also gave her body for this game. A player who had torn the same ACL three times — only barely recovering from the third in time for the start of the season — had a career high in a Badger uniform of 17 digs. She also had three aces.

The two transfer defenders might not have worn the “W” for as long as the front four, but their blood, sweat and tears were sprinkled over the court in a full effort.

As Florida’s heavy hitters — T’ara Caesar and Thayer Hall — pummeled canon blasts into the Badger backcourt, it was the work of Barnes and Civita that took the brunt of those shots. Caesar had a slow start but wound up with 17 kills. Hall had an unreal double double of 23 kills and 16 digs.

Mark Kuhlmann/NCAA Photos

But Barnes and Civita gritted out the performance and their commitment bled through the whole Badger side. Only one player who played more than one set did not register a dig.

It was a whole team fight, and Wisconsin scrambled to keep the ball in the air just enough to push it over the line.

Head coach Kelly Sheffield surely knows there will be a lot of tape to look at tonight.

Wisconsin was flustered by off speed shots by Florida all game and there were some uncharacteristic offensive errors across the board. The Badgers had cleaned up on service errors in recent games, but it was once again an issue this game.

But the fight showed by the Badgers — the undefeated No. 1 seed, with the biggest target on their back being chased by everyone in the NCAA Tournament — had to leave Sheffield happy.

That victory wasn’t always pretty. The match might have looked more like a 12-round boxing bout. But the victory filled with guts and grit.

The Badgers have talked all season how they want to win the NCAA title. How they could win the NCAA title. How that’s their only goal during practices: to win the NCAA title.

They did enough tonight to keep that dream on the cards, with the rest of the pack chasing them down. Next up for the Badgers (15-0 Big Ten, 18-0 overall) are the No. 4 seed Texas Longhorns (16-0 Big 12, 26-1 overall) in the Final Four on Thursday night.

Judging by this performance, we know the Badgers will be ready for the fight.