After a rocky start, the No. 3 Badgers (12-1 Big Ten, 18-3 overall) righted the ship to sweep the Illinois Illini (6-7, 11-12) 3-0 (25-22, 25-19, 25-22) in a tough road venue to get their 11th win in a row.
The story of the match again for the Badgers was again outside hitter Sarah Franklin. “Frank the Tank” led the way with 14 kills, but along with the rest of UW, looked a bit off-kilter in the first set.
The Badgers were up on the Illini 12-8, but let them back in the set with a 4-0 to tie 12-all. Then UW rattled off a 7-0 run with senior setter Izzy Ashburn back serving to go up 19-12.
But later in the set, Franklin had four errors to help open the door to the Illini. Although sophomore Anna Smrek had back-to-back kills to give UW set point, Franklin’s errors let the Illini back in before they fired wide in to give the Badgers a set win.
To be fair, it was a sloppy first half from both squads — as evidenced by the see-saw nature of the multiple runs. UW’s setting also was not quite on the same level as usual, which led to some uncharacteristic errors and a general attacking malaise — neither team hit above .100 in the first.
Yet Franklin got back in form in the second set. The outside hitter from Lake Worth, Florida started strong and got a huge kill to make the set 10-8 for UW after a slow start for the Badgers.
The second set also saw the Badger block heat up. Wisconsin is the second best team in the country for blocks per set, and the Badgers out-blocked the Illini 11-6 on the night.
Smrek and junior middle blocker Caroline Crawford were the pairing on a couple huge stuffs to put UW up 22-18. Another block with Smrek and Hart gave the Badgers a 23-18 lead. Hart led the team with eight blocks as she has really improved in that aspect of the game tonight. Crawford and Smrek both posted four.
Speaking of Smrek, the MVP of the Final Four has had a smaller role this season as well as facing some injury struggles at times. This was one of her more electric games tonight, as she had six kills on .500 hitting while adding four blocks.
But it was still Franklin’s night. She posted six kills in the second set while having just one error.
Franklin doubled her amount of kills in the final frame to have the match-high 14 kills and she finished with just one last error. The 6-foot-4 outside hitter had her whole array of shots working, which was important in a set that was back-and-forth early.
The Illini seem to be a Big Ten team better than their record. While Raina Terry had 13 kills, the UW block helped hold her to 12 errors as well to stymie her slightly. But she provided tough serving as well, including towards the end of the match as UW was looking to sweep. Kennedy Collins also worked great for the Illini out the middle, finishing with eight kills on .700 hitting.
But UW’s defense helped hold the Illini to just .065 hitting on the match. Fifth year libero Shanel Bramschreiber — once again in duty tonight for the injured Gülce Güçtekin — proved her pedigree. She was rock solid all night, posting nine digs and looking better in passing than the match against Minnesota, highlighted by seven assists.
Ashburn had 13 assists with 10 digs for a double-double while junior MJ Hammill had 12 and 9 as the 6-2 system still worked well for UW despite blips.
Wisconsin’s win means they keep pace with Nebraska in the Big Ten standings as they search for a fourth-straight Big Ten title.
Next up for UW is a home match against Indiana (6-7, 13-12) on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. CDT. It’s only on Big Ten+.