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Wisconsin volleyball: Badgers sneak past Nittany Lions in 3-2 thriller

The Badgers advance to the Elite Eight despite dropping the third and fourth set because of elite blocking in crucial moments.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel
Sophomore Anna Smrek was a crucial part of UW’s incredible day blocking as the Badgers snuck past Penn State to move on to the Elite Eight.
Mark Stewart / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

It looked like Wisconsin was going to win in a sweep when the Badgers were up 21-18 in the third set.

It looked like Wisconsin was going to lose after the serve and receive struggled to handle Penn State’s service game in the fourth.

But in the end, No. 1 seeded-UW overcame the roller-coaster of emotions on their home floor to fight off the No. 4 seeded-Nittany Lions’ challenge to win in a five-set thriller 3-2 (25-21, 25-19, 23-25, 20-25, 15-8) as the team showed out in the crucial frame.

Sophomore Anna Smrek became the story as the match progressed, saving some of her best work for the final set as she had 13 kills and eight blocks while hitting .579 to ensure the Badgers moved on to the Elite Eight match against the No. 2 seeded-Pittsburgh Panthers.

It was the work of Wisconsin’s block that stood out for the Badgers in a herky-jerky night in other aspects. The Badgers had 22 blocks as a team as Penn State’s offense struggled to get around the tall trees up front, especially in the first two sets.

In those sets, Wisconsin cruised as it forced 25 attacking errors, with some being blocked by the Badgers and others sailing long as the Nittany Lions tried to avoid hands at all cost.

That struggle was highlighted by Penn State’s stars’ struggles: Kash Williams had a match-leading 14 kills as well as 15 attacking errors. Zoe Weatherington, who was crucial in Penn State’s comebacks, had 11 kills and 12 attacking errors.

Meanwhile, UW was playing winning volleyball for most of the first 60 percent of the match. The Badgers had a 21-18 lead in the third set after a successful challenge for Smrek’s ninth kill.

Suddenly, Penn State woke up, and stormed back with a 7-2 run to take the third set and take the air out of the Wisconsin Field House. Freshman Alexa Markley had two big kills during that stretch to help out the Nittany Lions before Kash Williams had the clinching kill at 25-23.

In the fourth set, Penn State got out to a quick 3-0 lead and rarely let up as their service game paid off in aces and lengthy runs. The Nittany Lions pumped home 10 aces during the match, with setter Seleisa Elisaia notching a match-high four and Gillian Grimes chipping in with three.

Junior Sarah Franklin and freshman libero Gülce Güçtekin were in particular being targeted, and UW’s struggles in serve receive really allowed Penn State to control the fourth set. Even as UW held on with frequent runs of blocks — five Badgers had six or more stuffs tonight — the Nittany Lions quieted the crowd to take the fourth set 25-20 and seemed to take the air out of the building.

But in the fifth set, the Badgers got back to playing winning volleyball. Although sophomore Julia Orzoł had a quiet night on the attack, she had 16 digs and a crucial ace and serving run that helped UW strut out to a 6-1 lead in the fifth.

In that run, junior Devyn Robinson had two kills in a row to give her 11 on the night. Only Smrek and Franklin had more for UW, with both sharing the spoils with 13 kills a piece.

Caroline Crawford had a rough night on offense, but the junior from Kansas came up big in front of the net. The former-Jayhawk had a season-high 12 blocks despite having a huge cast on her right hand, and she and Smrek combined on back-to-back blocks to give UW a 12-4 lead as well as a huge solo block earlier in the frame. She also had her only two kills in the last set, including the one that set up match point.

The icing on the cake was provided by senior Joslyn Boyer, who with one serve from the bench sealed the match by finding the floor and giving Wisconsin the 15-8 win to avoid a shocking reverse sweep.

The Nittany Lions hung in the match in moments when it looked like the Badgers would run away with it, as the program had a big year under first year head coach Katie Schumacher-Cawley. But UW found a way through the Nittany Lions in five for the second time this season, the first being another thriller in November.

In that match, it was again the block that pushed Wisconsin over the edge as well. The Badgers are one of the best teams in the nation in terms of blocks per set, and will hope that continues as they face the Pitt Panthers on Saturday.

There’s a lot to work on for UW after this loss. They can’t struggle like that in the serve receive and expect to win another national title. But the team came up when they needed to and did all they had to do: survive and advance for their 21st straight win of the season.

Wisconsin will look to advance to their fourth-straight Final Four with a win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Field House Saturday at 7:00 p.m. on ESPNU.