When the Wisconsin Badgers last played Penn State in November, head coach Kelly Sheffield said the Badgers were “taken to the woodshed” in a 3-1 loss on the road.
The mood was much more chipper post game Thursday in Madison, after the Badgers out-physicaled the Nittany Lions in a rematch in the NCAA Tournament Round of 16 match where Wisconsin won 3-1 (25-11, 28-30, 25-12, 25-18) thanks in part to its block coming up huge to advance to the Elite Eight.
Middle blocker CC Crawford had 10 blocks — and also scored the match winning kill — while the Badgers as a team tallied 17 on the night, and that dominant block really made the Penn State hitters struggle all night. The Nittany Lions swung for just .082 on the night as Wisconsin found success from the service line as well, rattling off extended runs in both set three and four to ice the matches.
Senior opposite Devyn Robinson felt the team came into the match with a chip on their shoulder after the last timeout against the Nittany Lions, and said the dominance of their block was ready on the night.
“We stood on business,” Robinson said.
ELITE is just as sweet. pic.twitter.com/qzjg3SVytO— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) December 8, 2023
Robinson had a bounce back game for the Badgers, finishing with 10 kills and five blocks after struggling against Miami. Four Badgers — Robinson, Sarah Franklin, Temi Thomas-Ailara and Carter Booth — were in double digits for kills but the story for Wisconsin was the blocking and serving.
Booth and Robinson were involved early in the first set for UW, pushing PSU to an 18-8 lead after some quick kills from the middle for Booth and solid swings from Robinson. Booth hit .750 on the night and posted seven blocks, with three coming in the opening set.
The 6-foot-7 middle blocker from Colorado felt the Badgers were showing “too much court” to Penn State in the last matchup. This time, Wisconsin’s preparation in blocking paid off in a big way to win the opening set 25-11 and force a lot of attack errors as Penn State players feared the block.
“I feel like we really blocked the sun out for them and they didn’t have a whole lot,” Booth said.
UW forced Penn State to hit -.059 in the first set, but the Nittany Lions battled back in the second set. Led by outside hitter Jess Mruzik, who finished the match with 15 kills, the Nittany Lions found a way to get shots down and hit .326 in the second frame. The teams traded the lead and ties and reached extra points before PSU clawed back the set to win 30-28 to level the match at 1-1.
In the third set, the Badgers were battling back and forth before senior setter MJ Hammill got behind the service line with UW up 9-7. Hammill then led a 12-0 run to put the Badgers up 20-7 and electrify the crowd.
Sheffield felt the team’s serving set up a lot of the rest of the match and they executed the game plan well. During Hammill’s service run, the Badgers seemed to key in on serving to the front left on PSU middle blocker Taylor Trammell. Sheffield noted that was a part of UW’s gameplan and the Badgers servers, especially Crawford, Hammill and Gülce Güçtekin, were able to execute ways.
“We did a really good job on certain rotations on serving short and jamming them up. Then our blockers were making really good reads,” Sheffield said.
The strong serving set up the block well for the Badgers. CC Crawford, who tied her career-high with 10 blocks, said the serving got the Nittany Lions out of system which helped the Badgers see the subtleties that helped them key in on who might swing for PSU.
Sheffield in the end said it was all three phases — the attack, the defensive set up and the serving gameplan — all lined up in the match for Wisconsin.
“I thought we were in unison tonight,” Sheffield said.
The blocks just keep coming— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) December 8, 2023
Watch on ESPN2 pic.twitter.com/ppmopmp3FZ
That big service run from Hammill was punctuated by impressive kills by Temi Thomas-Ailara, who has hit double digit kills in all three matches of her first ever NCAA Tournament. It also included three huge blocks from Crawford, including two in a row and a solo block on Trammell. The Badgers’ huge run led to the huge 25-12 statement third set win where they again forced Penn State to hit in the negatives.
The fourth set was a similar story to the third. After some tight opening points, sophomore defensive specialist Gülce Güçtekin started a lengthy service run. Güçtekinwith fired a service ace to make the set 10-7 then Crawford and Smrek combined on a block that forced a PSU timeout. After the timeout, the Badgers rattled off seven more points to go up 18-7 and never looked back to close out the fourth set 25-18 and advance to the Elite Eight.
The Badgers will have one more match in the Field House where they will play either familiar foe Purdue or the No. 2 seed Oregon Ducks. Either way, Wisconsin’s play is elevating at the right time and the Badgers are feeling they are close to reaching the Championship level they strive for.
“It’s inches away,” Booth said. “There is always room to grow and strive to perfection. It’s what we do everyday. I don’t know if we’ll reach it, but that’s the fun of it.”
The Badgers will be back in action with a trip to the Final Four on the line Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Field House. That match — against either Oregon or Purdue — will be broadcast on ESPNU.