In one of the most unanticipated post-season streaks in program history, the Wisconsin volleyball team fell to Penn State 3-1 (19-25, 24-26, 25-20, 23-25) in its second national championship appearance in Badger history.
Wisconsin was the lowest seeded team to reach the NCAA finals in the tournament’s championship match between two Big Ten teams.
Although Wisconsin couldn’t stop Penn State’s string of 24 consecutive wins, Wisconsin won its first set against Penn State this season after being swept by the Nittany Lions twice during the regular season.
With a first year head coach, freshman setter, and six fruitless post-season spells coming before the 2013 season, head coach Kelly Sheffield said not many people believed the twelfth-seeded Badgers would be playing for a national crown except for those in the Badger locker room.
“It’s always hard when you end your season on a loss,” Sheffield told UW Badgers. “I think everybody out there saw a team that just wasn’t happy to be playing in this match. You know, there were a lot of emotions in the locker room. This team, they expected to win. They played to win. They expected to win. I know probably not a whole lot of people thought that we had a chance to do that. But our players did.”
With Wisconsin leading 23-20 in the fourth set, Penn State won five consecutive points to secure its sixth national championship in program history.
The Nittany Lions dominated the first set 25-19, hitting an efficient .350 attack percentage with 19 kills to the Badgers’ .152 hit percentage.
The start of set two did not fare much better for Wisconsin falling behind 1-6, with Penn State serving well and constraining Wisconsin to a more improvised offense. Wisconsin battled back with aggressive offense from its middle blockers, junior Dominique Thompson and freshman Haleigh Nelson, earning a set point at 24-23.
However, two costly Badger service errors late in the set helped Penn State to take a 2-0 lead. Wisconsin finished the match with six service errors and two service aces, while Penn State committed 12 service errors with six aces.
Pinned against a 2-0 deficit, Wisconsin was quickly down 1-5 in set three. But the Badgers fought back to an 8-8 tie and ripped an 8-0 run in the set to take a 17-12 lead, eventually taking the set 25-20.
Wisconsin out-blocked the top blocking squad in the nation by posting 14 total blocks, with freshman middle blocker Haleigh Nelson finishing one shy of her career high with nine blocks of her own.
Thompson led Wisconsin in kills with 16 at an attack clip of .315, and junior outside hitter Deme Morales followed with 15 kills.
Both Morales and freshman setter Lauren Carlini, who posted 39 assists and seven digs, were named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team.
Senior libero Annemarie Hickey led all players on defense with 26 digs. Junior outside hitter and sophomore defensive specialist Taylor Morey finished with 14 and 10 digs respectively.
Penn State was led by the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and Big Ten Setter of the Year Micah Hancock. The junior filled the stat sheet with 48 assists, 16 digs and five kills.
The Nittany Lions had three players reach double-digit kills, including senior outside hitter Ariel Scott, who led all players with 21 kills, and senior middle blocker Katie Slay who had 14 kills and posted a .481 hitting percentage.
The Badgers finished the season with a total of 28 victories – the most wins the program has collected since its first season with an NCAA finals appearance in 2000.