Wisconsin led a 7-3 advantage slip away in no time at all. A Penn State run not only tied up the crucial fifth set, but the Nittany Lions found themselves in front 11-9 — just four points until the win.
In a gym where UW has won just twice previously all-time, the Badgers did what they seemed to do at every point when things looked dicey in the match: dug in and balled.
It’s what championship level teams do.
And that’s how fifth year senior Danielle Hart helped grab the match by the scruff of the neck, and pull UW in front in the final frame to give the No. 3 Badgers (17-1 Big Ten, 23-3 overall) a gutty, 3-2 win (25-19, 22-25, 25-23, 18-25, 15-12) over the No. 14 Penn State Nittany Lions (11-7, 22-7) to not only prove there is a lot of fight in the new-look Badgers, but to maintain control of a fourth straight Big Ten title.
Hart — who missed last year’s title after an ACL tear last season — finished with 13 kills, no errors to hit .650 and eight blocks, with all of her contributions coming in crucial moments.
It was Hart’s kill that leveled the second set at 11. And it was her and sophomore Julia Orzoł combining on the block to seal the final frame at 15-12.
Hart and the rest of the UW block was crucial in a match that teetered and tottered in momentum in multiple instances. UW out-blocked PSU 15-6, and the Badgers’ dominance up front was crucial in the first set especially.
The Badgers held a dominant 14-5 lead in the first set thanks in part to an 8-0 service run sparked by senior Joslyn Boyer. That pressure allowed UW to keep Penn State’s dangerous attackers out of system as the Badgers wound up cruising in that set, forcing nine attacking errors from the Nittany Lions and holding them to just .139 hitting.
But in the second, PSU showed signs of life, taking a 15-10 advantage and extending it to 18-12. PSU’s attack in the shape of Allie Holland, Kash Williams and Zoe Weatherington started to find their shots as the Nittany Lions finished with 19 total kills in the second set.
Kash Williams was the real eye-opener, but her true star turn in the match would wait until the fourth set. Williams finished with a match-high 18 kills, but also 14 attacking errors that seemed to come when Wisconsin was at its most dominant. Meanwhile Holland showed off her All-Conference credentials with a 15-kill performance with a .467 hitting percentage.
But the third set once again started promising for Wisconsin. Junior Devyn Robinson and sophomore Anna Smrek helped get UW’s block working again in the third, going back-to-back early on to earn the Badgers a 7-2 lead that built to a 13-6 advantage.
Robinson again built off her big night on Friday. The junior from Ankeny, Iowa led UW with 17 kills and nine blocks as she brought a lot of energy — including flexing after that string of back-to-back blocks. It seemed like whenever UW needed a point, it was her or Hart making the difference.
An ace from senior Izzy Ashburn extended the lead to 17-6 in the third, but Smrek also awoke in this match. The sophomore from Ontario struggled with injuries early on, but she added seven kills and six blocks in a match illustrating her promise and talent.
Despite the advantage, Penn State clawed back in the third to make it 22-20. That’s when rock-steady Hart had a kill to make it 23-20, had a block to make it 24-20, then staved off a 3-0 Penn State run with a final kill to give UW the 2-1 lead in the third.
Now comes the bit of bad for Wisconsin. Outside hitter Sarah Franklin once again had an error-prone day. In the fourth set, Franklin had a sequence that included a service error then a passing error that helped PSU get an early 7-5 advantage.
We know when Franklin is on, she is other-worldly. Her performance against Nebraska early this year was a supernova. But tonight, she hit only .172 and seemed to hit her errors at the worst times. Granted, the Lake Worth, Florida-native looked solid in serve receive and the defensive end — she was tested a lot and had 10 digs — but for UW to really click, they need her to be more steady in the attack.
Speaking of supernovas, Kash Williams exploded in the fourth set to put Penn State in the drivers’ seat. Whether from the service line, where she pounded a bazooka-type of serve, or the attack, Williams was the difference for Penn State, and the crowd fed off her impressive play. That fourth set finished with an ace from Williams that set the crowd alight and seemed to provide the Nittany Lions with all the momentum.
But Robinson and Hart came to play in the fifth set, scoring two crucial blocks, causing an error from Williams and getting the key kills to help UW march out to its 7-3 lead it almost squandered.
But as stated, UW did not let that lead slip. Despite a roller coaster match, UW found enough steadiness from its middles and Robinson to push over the line in Happy Valley for only the third win in program history on the road against Penn State.
And in the end, the Badgers will be smiling all the way home to Madison, in sole first place in the Big Ten standings in a “rebuilding” year after the loss of its incredible, national title-winning senior class.
In terms of its rivals for the conference title, No. 5 Ohio State lost in a 3-1 upset to the Maryland Terrapins, dropping them to 15-2 in the Big Ten. They play Indiana tomorrow. Meanwhile, No. 6 Nebraska — with a 15-2 conference record — plays Purdue tomorrow.
What does that mean for Wisconsin? It means with upcoming showdowns with both Nebraska and Ohio State, the Badgers control their own destiny to win the Big Ten title and get an all-important Top 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament — which would mean they have all their games before the Final Four in Madison.
But tonight, the new-look Badgers can celebrate a gutsy performance reminiscent of something the team from last year would do.
Remind me, what did last year’s team do?
Not that these Badgers will care. They are focused on their own legacy.