Two sweeps in the first two rounds gave Wisconsin a chance at revenge in front of their home crowd as UW looks to reach its third Final Four in four seasons.
After dispatching Jackson State and Miami in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the No. 3 overall seeded-Wisconsin Badgers earned the ability to host the super regional and will face conference-rival Penn State in the Round of 16 Thursday night.
The Nittany Lions beat Wisconsin in Happy Valley back in November in four sets (23-25, 29-27, 25-23, 25-18) in a match that head coach Kelly Sheffield described as “being taken to the woodshed.” It was UW’s first loss in a two-game losing streak that saw the Badgers drop out of the Big Ten title race and one of three matches that junior opposite hitter Anna Smrek missed out due to injury.
The Badgers will hope to be able to better slow down the Nittany Lions’ attack and limit their kills compared to last match. Against the Badgers in the last match, PSU had 63 kills with three players in double digit kills, with outside hitter Camryn Hannah leading the way with 19 kills.
In the postseason PSU got a huge performance from outside hitter Jess Mruzik who fired home 21 kills against Kansas to earn the five-set, upset win over the Jayhawks last weekend. The Nittany Lions were also led on defense by veteran middle blocker, who had eight blocks against the Jayhawks and eight kills.
But Smrek’s return to the lineup seemed to settle the Badgers after a rough stretch. The 6-foot-9 star had 15 kills in the 3-0 win over Miami to lead Wisconsin and adds obvious size up front on the defensive end that fill-in attacker Julia Orzoł doesn’t quite share.
One key for Wisconsin will be being able to set both Smrek and middle blocker Carter Booth. The pair are the Big Ten leaders in hitting percentage, with Booth at number one hitting .446 on the season and Smrek at .406. Against Miami, Booth had six kills and no errors to help settle UW after a blistering start by Miami and being able to set the middle will mean that UW is staying in-system on the attack.
Another positive with Smrek back in the lineup is that the backrow rotation is more solid again, with Orzoł sliding back into the libero role and sophomore defensive specialist Gülce Güçtekin able to proving more passing help. The Turkish sophomore had arguably her best game last match, just in time for the tournament.
Speaking of a big performance in the tournament, graduate senior outside hitter Temi Thomas-Ailara has enjoyed her first ever NCAA Tournament matches, who got 10 kills in each match while hitting .402 over the two.
The former Northwestern transfer struggled for consistency in the regular season, but Smrek noticed there has been no major jitters for Thomas-Ailara compared to the team’s vast tournament experience.
“It’s (Temi’s) first tournament with us and she’s coming out confident and taking courageous swings,” Smrek said.
Wisconsin will hope the team stays hot against Penn State and will have the home side at its back for this match. UW will take on PSU at 6:00 p.m. Central at the UW Field House. That match will be on ESPN2. Whichever team wins will take on the winner of the Oregon vs. Purdue contest that will take place after the Badgers’ match.