The University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team’s season ended Saturday night after losing to No. 3 Illinois in the Elite Eight in four sets — 19–25, 25–15, 22–25, 23–25.
The loss followed a commanding regional semifinal victory Friday against San Diego in straight sets, 25-13, 25-16, 25-10.
After breezing to victory in their first- and second-round matchups against Green Bay (20-11) and Pepperdine (21-9), the sixth-seeded Badgers (25-7) came out firing on all cylinders Friday afternoon against San Diego (18-13). As has been the case all season, the victory came in an all-around team effort — the team finished with a season-high .515 hitting percentage, compared to a meager .045 mark put up by the Toreros.
The Badgers also managed to out-block the Toreros 15–2, led by a tremendous 10-block effort from senior Tionna Williams, who also added eight kills in the effort. Sophomore Dana Rettke finished the match with nine kills to go with five blocks, and sophomore Molly Haggerty also finished with eight kills.
Speaking with UW Athletics afterwards, Williams seemed poised and confident ahead of Saturday’s Elite Eight showdown with No. 3 Illinois (32-3).
“It’s the Elite Eight match, so everybody is going to come out swinging as hard as they can,” Williams said. “Illinois we know, we’ve seen them a few times already.”
Evidently Williams was onto something, as the Elite Eight matchup featured some of the Badgers’ fiercest play this season.
Wisconsin kept the first set close, trailing 18–20 before Illinois managed to string several points together to win the set, 19–25. The Badgers came into the second set looking to avoid a 2–0 hole, and they did just that, winning 25-15.
Wisconsin fell behind quickly in the third set, trailing 4–8 before managing to pull within one at 17–18. Coming out of a timeout, however, the Illini managed to pull away and take the frame 25–22.
Illinois surged to an assertive 16–8 lead in the fourth set before the Badgers called timeout. With their season on the line, the Badgers made a miraculous comeback to pull within one at 24–23, but Illinois managed to pull away and win the match on the very next play, putting to bed a courageous effort from the Badgers and ending their championship aspirations.
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The Badgers outhit the Illini .338 to .294, marking the first time all season that Wisconsin lost a match after hitting .300 or better. Rettke led the team with 21 kills and five blocks while Williams and Haggerty tallied 13 and 12 kills, respectively.
With the loss, Wisconsin finished 2018 with a 25-7 record. It was an incredible season that featured eight wins over ranked teams and a sixth straight appearance in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers also had two players named to the regional all-tournament team in Rettke and Williams.
Wisconsin is now 46–22 all-time in NCAA tournament play, including an 18–6 record under sixth-year head coach Kelly Sheffield.
When asked about her team’s effort, Williams expressed a sense of pride and grief knowing her Badger career is over.
“This team is all about pride, especially with being down in that final set, coming back, and everybody believing that we could come back,” Williams said. “Nobody laid down. There is just tremendous pride, but it hurts. It hurts a lot.”
Williams finished her career with 1,009 kills and 512 blocks, becoming just the sixth Wisconsin player to reach 1,000 kills and 500 blocks in her career.