clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Wisconsin volleyball: Badgers fall to Pitt Panthers in five sets, stopping title defense

Wisconsin’s fantastic season ends in heartbreak after errors doom Badgers in a five-set thriller despite multiple fight backs

Syndication: Journal Sentinel
Untimely errors dooms UW’s gritty comeback attempts to Pitt as the Panthers upset Wisconsin on their home floor and move on to the Final Four.
Ebony Cox / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Badgers’ title defense ends in heartbreak at home.

Despite multiple Wisconsin comebacks, the Badgers fell to a gutsy No. 2-seed Pittsburgh Panther squad that bested the defending national champions in five sets (25-23, 21-25, 21-25, 25-19, 13-15), stopping UW’s incredible 21-game winning streak on their home floor.

Former Iowa Hawkeye Courtney Buzzerio led the way for the Panthers with 18 kills on the night, but the story for Pitt in the match seemed to be their digs, as UW found it tough to terminate points.

The Panthers dominated early in the first set to take a 17-10 lead over Wisconsin before the Badgers had their first major comeback in the match. Sophomore Anna Smrek came alive to finish the first set with six kills — the impressive Canadian had 13 on the night — to help boost UW to prevail 25-23. Serving runs from fifth year senior Shanel Bramschreiber and Joslyn Boyer helped cut the difference as well before Devyn Robinson finished off the first.

Robinson was once again a huge factor on offense for Wisconsin, putting up a match-leading 21 kills on .439 hitting, but in the second set, Pitt’s offense found their footing especially through the middle.

Serena Gray and Chiamaka Nwokolo were dominant from those quick hits in the middle, with Nwokolo being especially hard to stop in the second and third sets. Nwokolo added back-to-back blocks in in the second that put Pitt up 19-14, a lead they would not give up this time.

Throughout the match, serving pressure was great for the Panthers and UW had some issues again with the serve receive to allow eight aces. Cat Flood was especially crucial behind the service line for Pitt, and she had a match-high three aces and was a weapon.

After being held to .059 hitting in the first, the Panthers were able to get through UW’s block to hit for .357 and then .311 in the second and third frames. Arguably, it was Pitt’s ability to tool the block from the pins and the dominance of Nwokolo that unlocked their offense.

Wisconsin did take a 17-16 lead in the third, but some gutsy serves from Pitt freshman Dillyn Griffin that included an ace on a 3-0 run before Buzzerio put the Panthers over the top at 25-21 to go up 2-1 on the match.

UW battled as you would expect. This game truly was a heavyweight fight and the effort shown by both teams was worthy of a Final Four match. Wisconsin had five players with double digit digs as libero Gülce Güçtekin led the way with 24. The freshman from Turkey had some issues with serve receive but clearly has a bright future for the Badgers. Meanwhile, MJ Hammill and Izzy Ashburn posted double doubles, with 23 assists and 18 digs for Hammill and 32 and 11 for Ashburn.

Improved passing and blocking helped UW jump out to an 8-3 start in a do-or-die fourth. Nwokolo got a kill to tighten the set to 8-6, but the Badgers’ grit showed out this set, evidenced by a play from sophomore Julia Orzoł.

The Pole had a dig — one of 12 (she also had a double double with 10 kills) — that came from her reaching back to save a ball that was eventually finished off by Sarah Frankin to make it 17-12 and force Pitt into their last timeout.

With the season on the line, fifth year senior Danielle Hart and Franklin each had five kills in set fourth as UW hit .378 as the passing was much improved and the Badgers could stay in system.

Then came the heartburn (or heart attack)-inducing fifth set. After a promising start with a kill by Robinson, Ashburn had a service error that gave the ball back to Pitt. Flood then jumpstarted a 3-0 run for Pitt with another ace and eventually the Panthers had a 7-2 lead in part due to four UW attacking errors.

I counted the Badgers out at this point. Then UW went on a run and MJ Hammill had an ace to cut the lead to 8-6. Then the Panthers had a 3-0 run and again I thought Wisonsin was dead.

Then Shanel Bramschreiber came in to serve and Julia Orzoł had three kills in a row and an extra kill for good measure to give UW a 6-0 run that put the Badgers up 12-11.

The next point, it appeared Pitt had a double contact on a set — at least all 7,000 or so officials in red in the Field House also agreed — as the score went to 12-12. But eventually, Pitt was able to close out the match, despite the Badgers’ best efforts, and it means Wisconsin fell on the Field House floor for the first time all season and will miss out on the Final Four for the first time in three years.

So it’s a heartbreaking end to a great season for a re-tooled UW team. The Badgers won their fourth Big Ten title in a row — once again outright — and earned a No. 1-seed for two regional trips.

But errors in the end plagued the Badgers, whether on the attack or in serve receive. The biggest “what if” for the team may be letting Pitt race out to the lead in the fifth set and having to claw back twice. However, there is no denying the fight in the team, and many of those newer faces will be back next season.

In the end, it’s hard to feel not proud of the season and the way the team played. But there will be no return to the Final Four and no further defense of the program’s first national title, as Pitt will go on to face ACC-conference foe Louisville in their first Final Four match next week.