To be the best, you have to beat the best – and the Wisconsin women’s volleyball team did just that Sunday.
The Badgers (14-12, 6-8) knocked off defending four-time national champion No. 6 Penn State (17-6, 11-3) at the Field House in five sets, 26-24, 25-19, 32-34, 14-25, 15-12.
Sunday afternoon’s match resembled more of a boxing match than a volleyball contest, as Wisconsin and Penn State exchanged blow after blow on the court in one of the hardest fought and most exciting matches of the season, featuring 32 tied scores and 12 lead changes. Wisconsin beat Penn State for the first time since 2006 and won for the first time in five sets all season.
“That was a great win for our program in a lot of ways,” head coach Pete Waite said. “We saw some very good ball on our side of the net Friday against Ohio State in the first set, but we didn’t sustain that. This time we sustained it.”
Helping in large part to sustain that performance was junior Alexis Mitchell, who fought admirably against Penn State’s gigantic front line, as the middle blocker totaled 10 kills and seven blocks against one of the nation’s best squads.
“I’m still in shock,” junior Alexis Mitchell said. “It’s just great to win like that, especially after letting them come back. We felt a little bit down, but we dug deep and pulled it out in the fifth set. It was a great game to play and be a part of.”
Right off the bat, it was a tight one. In an opening set that had seven tied scores and two lead changes, the Badgers came back after trailing for a majority of the set. Down 17-14, Wisconsin used a combination of Penn State attack errors, blocks and several strong kills from the front line to down Penn State.
In the opening set, the Badgers hit a lower percentage than the Nittany Lions, as Penn State outhit Wisconsin .250 to .182. However, the Badgers benefited nicely from five Nittany Lion service errors, as Penn State ultimately committed 13 on the day compared to Wisconsin’s three.
“A big stat for me in the match was the service errors,” Waite said. “It should make the players feel good that [serve-receive] came together when it needed to.”
However, after a Badger win in the second set it looked like the wheels might fall off, as the Nittany Lions took the third and fourth sets. The Badgers had numerous opportunities to complete the sweep in the third set, since the team had the Nittany Lions at match point five separate times in extra points. But momentum looked to be shifting to Penn State, especially after Wisconsin dropped the fourth set 14-25.
But the Badgers finished what they started in the fifth and final set – thanks in large part to a key 7-2 run that helped break a 2-2 tie. The final point of the set and the match came on a kill by junior Bailey Reshel, bringing a thunderous roar from the home crowd and a jubilant team celebration onto the floor.
“I think we knew after the fourth set we needed to make a change,” sophomore Annemarie Hickey said. “All of us wanted to win really bad; we’ve just been really sick of losing. We talked all week about playing for our team, and I think we really came together as a team that game.”
It was an impressive victory for Wisconsin, considering the team was coming off arguably its most disappointing loss of the season. Friday night at home against No. 22 Ohio State was a completely different affair, as Wisconsin looked terrific in the first set but faded fast, falling in four sets, 20-25, 25-20, 25-18, 25-21.
Wisconsin hit its second-lowest hitting percentage of the season, as the Badgers posted a measly .098 ratio (44 kills, 30 errors, 143 attempts). After Friday, it looked like the Badgers might be losing grips on their NCAA tournament hopes, but the Badgers showed a giant burst of life by responding from a disappointing loss in the biggest way possible.
“We really found a way as a team – everyone on the bench and the court – to pull through and get this game,” Mitchell said. “Five set games so far this season haven’t gone our way, so we really wanted to get back on track. This was a great win for us and a great confidence builder going into facing Michigan and Michigan State next weekend because we know what they’re capable of, but now we know what we’re capable of.”