MILWAUKEE — There were extra points. There were heart-stopping comebacks. There were errors. There were records that were broken. But in the end, the Badgers’ perfect record was not broken.
On a night where 17,093 hearty, loud Wisconsinites showed up to break an NCAA record for the largest indoor crowd for volleyball, the No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers (8-0) survived a tough run from in-state rival Marquette Golden Eagles (2-6), pulling out a 3-1 (28-26, 20-25, 26-24, 25-18) win that was the result of the team staying steady in a sea of ties and lead changes.
With the match being played at the Milwaukee Bucks’ Fiserv Forum, the first set was plagued with errors — serving or otherwise — from both teams. In a twisty-turney first set that featured 16 ties and seven lead changes, head coach Kelly Sheffield felt that Marquette’s stout defensive play had the Badgers “on their heels.”
“They were making some incredible defensive plays,” Sheffield said. “The right backs, the number of digs they had…was not something you see very much.”
Meanwhile, cheers in the arena as the fans set an NCAA indoor volleyball attendance record tonight with 17,037 people showing up https://t.co/x2Dziy86ow— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) September 14, 2023
Marquette libero Sarah Kushner, setter Ella Foti and setter Yadhira Anchante were everywhere for the Golden Eagles defensively in the opening set, frustrating the Badger offense by extending rallies with saving digs. Those three players finished with double digit kills, while Marquette as a team posted 64 total.
UW’s setters and team captains Izzy Ashburn and MJ Hammill agreed with Sheffield after the match that the defensive play — the long rallies forced by Marquette — was at times frustrating the offense. UW was held to just .150 in the first set, and struggled to close out MU despite holding their offense to just .039 hitting.
In fact, the Golden Eagles held a 22-17 lead in the first before one of three impressive charges from UW in the match. Sheffield said post game he was impressed by how the team did despit playing from behind for a lot of the first three sets.
“Our team didn’t give up on themselves in those moments,” Sheffield said.
The first charge was led by middle blocker CC Crawford, who had back-to-back kills to cut the lead to 22-20, then tied the set at 22-all. Crawford got her third kill off a slide play to give Wisconsin set point, but Marquette battled off set points to tie the match until middle blocker Carter Booth closed out the set.
The sophomore got a quick kill on a pass in the middle before combining with senior Devyn Robinson on a block to give UW the 28-26 set win.
The second set, a familiar opponent was the Badgers’ undoing: themselves. Service errors were a terrible feature for Wisconsin tonight, with UW racking up a dreadful 18 service errors.
Meanwhile, Marquette paced out to a 14-5 lead in the second set that forced Sheffield to call all his timeouts. MU junior Jenna Reitsma had three of the Golden Eagles’ five aces in the second set, while it seemed all of the Badgers’ serves flew into the net.
Wisconsin did fight back again. Ashburn got an ace to cut the lead then the Badgers got to within six as Hammill helped lead a run to cut the deficit to 18-12.
Marquette went on another run before some more blocks from Booth forced the Golden Eagles to call timeout clinging to a 21-18 lead. The sophomore from Colorado was a crucial part of the front that out-blocked Marquette 12-6 on the night. But the rally was cut short and Marquette tied the match with a 25-20 set win, thanks in part to Hartland-native Aubrey Hamilton’s 11 kills in two sets. She finished with 15 on the night.
Ashburn said despite the frustration felt from the tough defending of Marquette, the mantra was to keep working and bouncing back in transition defense instead of thinking the point was over after a great swing.
“You can’t hit a ball and start cheering right away,” Ashburn said. “I think our hitters did a really good job at that by the end of the match.”
Wisconsin started the third set well, pacing out to a 5-2 lead thanks to a serve from Ashburn that made her the UW record holder for most aces. But the teams traded runs mid-set and UW held a slim 15-14 advantage at the media timeout.
But some service runs from Marquette put them in the driver’s seat to take a 2-1 advantage as Sheffield called timeout with his team down 22-18. Then, Marquette got set point at 24-21.
Hammill said that the attackers had to make sure to “stay the course” against Marquette’s great defense.
“You can’t do anything special,” Hammill said. “There is no two-point play. You have to keep at them.”
But while facing three set points, that’s exactly what Hammill did.
Although the crowd split was about 70-30 for Wisconsin fans, the Marquette students were right by the court, and they were loud, especially in the third. In the loudest part of the match, with the possibility of going 2-1 down, Hammill served five in a row to not just tie the set, but to win the set.
TIED. IT. UP!— Wisconsin Volleyball (@BadgerVB) September 14, 2023
MU 24 pic.twitter.com/elPaFuOkCQ
With a big smile on her face, Hammill said facing that adversity and the screaming fans spoke to how the team trains the “mindfullness” aspects of being prepared and how crucial that is to face those big moments.
“Those are the moments where you’re either ready or you’re not,” Hammill said. “We are just going to find a way to win by any means possible.”
After Hammill’s heroics, it seemed that Marquette hit a wall after UW’s third set charge. The Badgers came out firing in the fourth set, closing the match with a .452 hitting percentage and overpowering the Golden Eagles.
Junior Anna Smrek took over the fourth set re-emerging as a star for the Badgers. The MVP of the 2021 Final Four finished the night with 15 kills — tied with Sarah Franklin for most — thanks to seven electric kills in the final frame that finished 25-18 and sealed UW’s eight straight win.
Although the Badgers acknowledged Marquette’s otherworldly defensive effort, junior Julia Orzoł was also covering everywhere for Wisconsin. The Polish libero had a career-high 23 digs and had three timely aces in the final set. Meanwhile, Hammill had a double double with 25 assists and 14 digs. In fact, Gülce Güçtekin was the only Badger player who stepped on the court who did not tally at least one dig.
In an epic in-state clash, the Badgers were able to grit and charge their way from behind and win the match. That is a good sign ahead of what will be a grueling Big Ten conference slate.
UW’s out-of-conference tests aren’t over yet though. Next up: only a match against the No. 3 ranked Florida Gators (8-0) in Gainesville, Florida. That match will take place at 2:00 p.m. central on ESPN.