Alexis Mitchell (airborne) had 12 kills against UMN and was the only UW player in double thirds. Before the match, Mitchell had 160 kills.[/media-credit]

The Wisconsin volleyball team fought long and hard against the No. 14 Minnesota Gophers Wednesday night but fell short in five sets: 25-22, 23-25, 18-25, 25-21, 10-15.

In a match that featured 25 tied scores and 14 lead changes, Wisconsin and Minnesota clawed back and forth for five grueling sets. But when it came down to it, Wisconsin couldn’t hold on in the fifth set as Minnesota used a six-point run from a 7-9 hole and four Wisconsin attack errors to take the lead for good.

“We just didn’t attack as well in the last set,” freshman Courtney Thomas said. “We could’ve came out with the win.”

The close match was even more impressive considering the Badgers were without standout freshman Crystal Graff after the second set. Graff was factoring to be a major player in the match, as she recorded eight kills in limited action.

With Graff out for a knee injury, Wisconsin saw two players step up to fill the void left. Freshman Caroline Workman stepped in defensively for the Badgers, and junior Bailey Reshel played a major role offensively up front in larger roles and helped to keep the Badgers close throughout.

“It was extremely important those two stepped up,” head coach Pete Waite said. “I thought Caroline was serving tough and that was great, and Bailey got in there and took some good swings. The thing I was so impressed with was the fact we outblocked them 14-7 and we outdug them. Offensively, they were slightly ahead of us, but we battled back. We let them slip away at the end, so that’s where we’ll have to be more solid in every aspect of our game.”

It looked for a while like the Badgers were going to be sent packing in the fourth set. But Thomas and the Badgers didn’t let that happen, as a Wisconsin rally that brought the crowd of the Field House to its feet Wednesday night saved the set.

Minnesota’s strong kills gave the Gophers a late 18-15 lead, but two kills each by junior Alexis Mitchell and Thomas combined with two service aces from sophomore Annemarie Hickey helped give the Badgers a 23-19 lead and ensured a fifth set.

“That run was huge,” Waite said. “Over the course of the match, I don’t think there were nearly as many big runs for either team. It felt like it was neck and neck the whole match, which says a lot for us stabilizing things in our game.”

“I think that showed how great of a team we can be,” Thomas said. “It showed we could beat anyone we face. All of the players should believe after a set like that we can do anything. We just always need to know and believe that.”

The match appeared to be a fight from the start, as Wisconsin and Minnesota fought back and forth throughout the first set. Two serving errors hampered the Gophers early while Badger freshmen outside hitters Crystal Graff and Ellen Chapman pillaged the floor for a combined 11 kills, leading the team to a 25-22 win.

With no team ever gaining more than a three point lead, it was fitting that Graff should end the first set with a kill, considering the freshman totaled five kills in the first set, second only to Chapman’s six.

On the other side of the net, Wisconsin struggled to contain one of the conference’s best hitters in Minnesota’s Ashley Wittman. Wittman harassed the Badgers throughout the contest with 21 kills.

Highlighting the Badgers offensively was Thomas, as the freshman fell one kill short of a triple-double with 9 kills, 16 assists and 22 digs.

“I think we’re doing all the right things right now,” Waite said. “I think we’re getting better all the time. That’s a top-15 team we lost to tonight, and we went to five with them and barely lost it. I think we’re gradually improving along the way. If Crystal is able to play, great; if not, we have to have the next person come in and stabilize us.”

After once again battling with a top team, the Badgers continue to be on the brink of a large upset.

“It’s true they’re gaining so much experience on the court right now, and that’s phenomenal,” Waite said. “These guys will continue to make progress throughout the spring going into next fall, but we want these games now. And they’re going to get more and more hungry to win these until we get one of these (upsets).”