After a crushing five-set loss against Nebraska in October, Badger fans had their calendars circled for Nov. 24 at the Field House as a potential Big Ten title decider and chance for revenge.
Instead, the Wisconsin Badgers (16-3 Big Ten, 25-3 overall) struggled down the stretch, losing two of three matches and giving Nebraska the chance to win its first Big Ten title since 2017 and keep an undefeated season.
Although spoiling Nebraska’s loss column was not in the discussion pre-match, setter MJ Hammill looking back at that loss, there was more that could be done.
“We realized we had unfinished business,” Hammill said.
The Badgers took care of business in the rubber match, beating the previously unbeaten Nebraska Cornhuskers (18-1, 27-1) in straight sets (25-22, 28-26, 25-16) in front of a raucous Field House crowd and building momentum heading into the postseason.
Although the signs of the rivalry were all throughout the crowd — a special video message pre-game said “Welcome to the Dungeon,” a nod to a quote from a Nebraska player about how it felt to play in the Field House — head coach Kelly Sheffield said the wider focus was on improving after form dipped of late.
Got our revenge, in the Dungeon pic.twitter.com/cP6rFLwICt— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) November 24, 2023
“This match was not about (beating) Nebraska,” Sheffield said. “When you’ve lost two out of your last three, it was really important for us to start playing well…I think that’s where the excitement was (for us).”
Sheffield also said it was important to get the whole team available to play and get back together this match. Junior middle blocker Anna Smrek — who missed three matches, including the two losses — was a huge factor for Wisconsin today, leading all players with 18 kills and adding three blocks.
Despite the win, the Badgers struggled early in the first set, facing a 6-2 hole. The Badgers were biting into the lead, but were still trailing until a crucial challenge for Wisconsin helped give the Badgers a 20-19 lead. Then, junior middle blocker CC Crawford had an ace to put UW up 21-19 and forced a Nebraska timeout.
UW had three aces in the first set and finished the day with five aces — a much improved performance compared to last Nebraska match where they struggled to serve. Hammill said it was important to improve in that field to put more pressure on Nebraska’s great passing.
“You want to be putting good hard serves into good places, Hammill said. “That was what we were trying to do over and over again.”
After Crawford’s ace, Franklin and Smrek combined for four kills to close out the first set 25-22. Those two were on fire for Wisconsin on the night. Smrek had the match-high 18 kills while Franklin posted a double double with 16 kills and 10 digs.
Smrek and Franklin were again relied on for clutch moments in a back-and-forth second set that had 11 ties and six lead changes. Both teams had two chances to serve for set point, including Nebraska pushing the second set to 26-25. Then the Badgers had a 3-0 run to fight off set point that was finished off with a Carter Booth kill.
Smrek had seven kills in the second set and was called in a lot during the final few points. The 6-foot-9 middle blocker said her clutch performance came from a team-wide confidence that each player will perform.
“(I knew) MJ (Hammill) trusts me to put a ball away, and I know she will give me a great ball as well,” Smrek said.
Last time out against Nebraska, UW had chances to close out the match but failed to slam the door. Sheffield said there was an emphasis in being courageous in the play but staying patient against the great serving and passing from Nebraska.
“We closed out both those first two sets really well,” Sheffield said. “Sometimes you get in those situations and get a little bit tighter. We weren’t tight today. We were a lot better when we were being aggressive.”
In the last set, Wisconsin traded ties with Nebraska before the tides turned. Booth posted a solo block from a backrow attack from outside hitter Harper Murray. Then, Franklin got a kill to put UW up 13-9 and forced a Nebraska timeout and gave Wisconsin a lead they would not give up.
Graduate senior Temi Thomas-Ailara — who was initially in the negatives — hit .833 in the final frame and finished the match with eight kills. The team as a whole was nearly perfect in the clinching set, hitting .593 with just one error against Nebraska’s stout defense.
With the whole team clicking, it was Smrek who delivered back-to-back kills to close out the match and finish a huge sweep over the Huskers. Smrek believes that final set victory will be a huge positive takeaway for the team going forward the rest of the season.
“The best volleyball we play is when we’re having fun and sticking together,” Smrek said. “Having that mentality that we’re going to up and give it right back to them with our offense put us in good situations.”
With Wisconsin’s win, it puts them back in the conversation for earning a Top 4 seed that would allow the team to host matches in the NCAA Tournament up until the Elite Eight. With the team back now at full strength, there could be the hindsight and “what if” on why the team dropped some matches. But Hammill said the team is more focused on getting back to work instead of dwelling on the possibilities.
“I don’t think we like to give excuses on why we’re losing matches or not playing to our full potential because that’s selling yourself short. That’s not championship behavior,” Hammill said.
Smrek said the match had a similar intensity to playing the Huskers in the NCAA Championship in 2021, but that was mostly because the Badgers were “hungry” to win the match. While eyes turn towards an NCAA Tournament run, Hammill believes they could be seeing Nebraska again.
But while the match’s intensity and energy in the crowd — the players said they were amazed by the passion and noise in the Field House — played like a last match, Wisconsin’s regular season business is still unfinished. The Badgers host the Iowa Hawkeyes for senior night at the Field House. That match is Saturday night at 7 p.m. Central on Big Ten plus.