When the third-ranked University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team took to the home court for the first time this past weekend, it only seemed fitting that the banners proclaiming the Badgers 2000 Big Ten Champs and NCAA finalists be lowered.
What was not fitting, however, was that Northern Iowa took home the hardware from the Badger Invitational.
The five-game loss was UW’s first defeat at the hands of an unranked opponent since Michigan State beat the team back in 1999. The Badgers, who dropped to 6-2 on the year, fell behind early to UNI (7-0), losing the first game 22-30. UW was able to overpower the Panthers in the second game, winning 30-18. The third game, the thriller of the night, saw Wisconsin take an early 12-7 lead. However, UNI was able to come back and tie it at 17-all before closing it out 31-29.
The Badgers were able to set up the fifth and deciding game by beating the Panthers 24-30 in the fourth game. However, they could not hold on to their home-court advantage, losing 15-13 in the finale.
“I’ve always had a ton of respect for [UNI]–they’re well balanced, coached, and very aggressive,” said Badger head coach Pete Waite. ” [UNI] played great defense and I am disappointed that [UW] did not come out with intensity and focus that we have been in the last two weeks.”
The intensity and focus that helped the Badgers defeat then-second-ranked USC last week was prevalent only in spurts of the final of the Badger Invitational.
Despite hitting better (.249 to .218) and recording more blocks (16 to 9.5), digs (72 to 59), and kills (83 to 73) than UNI, Wisconsin could not beat the Panthers for the tenth straight time. Coach Waite was not surprised with the game UNI brought to the court since the last time these two teams met.
Last December the Badgers knocked Northern Iowa out of the second round of the NCAA tournament en route to their runner-up finish.
“I’ve known [UNI] for years in different conferences and non-conference play,” said Waite. “I know what’s coming at us and I know that they’re a team that has a shot to beat anyone on the court any day they play.”
Wisconsin was led by outside hitter Lori Rittenhouse, who, despite being ill the past few days, marked 19 kills off of a .581 hitting effort.
The championship match against Northern Iowa was set up earlier in the Invitational when UW won their first match of the tournament, sweeping head coach Pete Waite’s alma mater Ball State 30-28, 33-31, 30-16 in the Badgers’ home opener. Since the Cardinals’ main game plan was to stop middle blocker Sherisa Livingston, sophomore outside hitter Lisa Zukowski led UW’s attack recording 12 digs and a career-high 21 kills. The Badgers also out-hit the Cardinals .348 to .228.
“I was just really excited about playing at home,” said Zukowski. “It wasn’t like I was doing it alone out there — Sherisa opens up amazing holes, Lizzy sees [BS] going for Sherisa and it opened up holes for me.”
“We thought that if we could make Livingston’s night difficult, we could be in the match,” said Ball State head coach Randy Litchfield. “Our game plan was perfect — we had her out of the match and she wasn’t a factor. We were shocked that Zukowski and Byrd went off like they did against us.”
In second-round action, Wisconsin faced Saint Louis. UW knocked the Billikens out in four games, winning 30-13, 30-15, 27-30, 30-11. All-Americans Livingston and Lizzy Fitzgerald dominated the floor action for the Badgers. Unlike Ball State, the Billikens were not able to shut down Livingston; she tallied 24 kills and two service-aces, while Fitzgerald assisted in 52 of Wisconsin’s scores. Zukowski had another great showing, adding 11 more kills to her total, and junior outside hitter Erin Byrd had 14 kills in the winning effort.
Despite Wisconsin’s tournament loss, both Livingston and Zukowski were able to garner all-tournament honors.