Wisconsin returns to NCAA final after winning “an epic volleyball match”

Louisville libero Elena Scott gets in front of Alexa Hendrick for this pass against Wisconsin/Wally Nell photo

To say the NCAA Tournament national semifinal match between Wisconsin and top-seeded Louisville got a little hairy Thursday at Nationwide Arena might be an understatement.

Literally and figuratively.

There was plenty of back-and-forth, a plethora of momentum swings, no shortage of drama and several individual heroic performances.

And hair.

Fourth-seeded Wisconsin knocked out the previously unbeaten and top-seeded Cardinals 25-23, 15-25, 25-21, 23-25, 15-9 to advance to Saturday’s NCAA title match. Wisconsin is back in the final for the second time in three years after losing to Stanford in the 2019 match and falling to Texas in last spring’s semifinals.

In the fifth set, Louisville appeared to take a 7-6 lead when the Badgers’ Devyn Robinson was called for a net violation. Coach Kelly Sheffield challenged the call, and the video review showed Robinson’s hair, not part of her body, contacted the next.

Wisconsin was awarded the point.

Coincidence or not, that appeared to be the final swing of the pendulum. Wisconsin scored nine of the match’s final 12 points.

“That was an epic volleyball match,” Sheffield said. “The level of play by both teams, the heart by both teams was special. We were really fortunate to come out on the winning side of that.

“It wasn’t something that we showed more heart and more will than our opponent … We knew it was going to be like this. (Louisville) is an unbelievable team that had an incredible, incredible season.”

During the fourth set, Sheffield told his seniors — the ones who decided to return for another season — that this was why they came back. And, certainly several of them played big roles. Lauren Barnes was diving all over the floor in the later stages of the match making big-time dig after big-time dig.

Sydney Hilley was en route to dishing out 58 assists.

And Dana Rettke was putting down 14 kills and coming up with eight blocks.

But two freshmen came up huge for Wisconsin. Canadian middle Anna Smrek had a personal-best 20 kills — on a whopping .704 hitting percentage — and also had three blocks, including one in the fifth. She had 17 kills in 20 errorless swings to before committing an error.

Julia Orzol, the Big Ten freshman of the year, also had her fingerprints all over the result. The outside from Poland was the target of seemingly every Louisville serve and handled most of them deftly. Orzol had nine kills — two in the pivotal 4-1 Wisconsin run in the middle of the fifth set that gave them a 10-7 lead — seven digs, two blocks and an ace.

Smrek was pressed into perhaps more duty this season than originally intended. Senior All-American middle Danielle Hart blew our her knee early in the season, leaving a significant hole in the Badgers’ rotation.

Smrek responded all season long and then with the match of her life on the biggest stage.

“As a team, we discussed coming in with confidence,” said Smrek, whose father, Mike, played six seasons in the NBA. “We were all together on the same page. Kelly said, ‘Let’s remember three words, let it rip.’ ”

Added Sheffield: “We thought this was set up for Anna to have a really big night, how she had been going about things practice-wie. She wasn’t forcing things. She was just playing within herself. She was making good swings, making good reads. She seemed like a grizzled veteran out there.”

Louisville stayed in the match making its own clutch plays. Sophomore Anna DeBeer had 20 kills — many of them at key moments — to lead the Cardinals. Tori Dilfer had 49 assists, 10 digs and three kills. Anna Stevenson added 12 kills.

And the Cardinals, too, got outstanding moments from players who might not normally seize the spotlight. Ceci Rush served an ace to close out the fourth set and send the match to the decider.

Claire Chaussee had 11 kills. Amaya Tillman was successful on her first seven kill attempts of the match, finishing eight.

But it wasn’t enough to rescue the Cardinals, who fell two wins short of finishing an epic undefeated season.

“This is a really tough moment,” Louisville coach Dani Busboom Kelly said. “This is a team you could be with forever. … It’s just one of those really special groups that you just never really want it to end. We owe a lot to our seniors. They are an amazing senior class.

“Every game in the final four is going to feel like a championship match. People making big plays when it mattered. All-Americans making great plays. It’s as high level as it gets.”

Said Stevenson: “It’s the best season I have ever been a part of by far. This group has just been the best. It’s kind of sad to think I’m done playing college volleyball. I’ve loved every minute of being with this team.”

With teams that finished fifth and sixth in the country in hitting percentage, the level of offense over the first three sets might have been expected. Wisconsin captured the first set 25-23 with the teams combining for 33 kills.

Louisville came back in a big way, winning the second set 25-15. The Cardinals were able to capitalize on Wisconsin’s repeated service errors: the Badgers had 14 throughout the match.

Wisconsin rebounded to win the third set 25-21, and Louisville eked out a 25-23 win in the fourth, getting a Chaussee kill and Rush’s ace to end it.

As exciting as the offense made the first four sets, defense, Sheffield said, was the deciding factor.

“I thought at the end of the match, both teams were playing at an even higher level,” Sheffield said. “I don’t know how many balls you’re sitting there going, ‘That ball’s going down on the other side of the net,’ and here it comes back.

“You have to play some good defense when you get here. I know our offense gets talked about quite a bit. We don’t win that match tonight without us defending …We won that fifth set on our defense.”

Getting a critical challenge to go his way didn’t hurt either. With every point tense in the final set, Wisconsin got what might have been the most important.

“You’re never confident with your challenge with anything,” Sheffield said. “We had four challenges at that point, and hadn’t used any of them. They said her hip was in it (the net). That would be unusual for (Robinson). She was pretty adamant.”

The tide turned, Louisville surged and Smrek’s kill put an end a pulsating match. Barnes, whom Sheffield referred to as wearing a Superman cape, was elated as opposed to exhausted in the aftermath.

“Honestly, right now I feel like I could run through a brick wall,” Smrek said.

For Louisville, its magical season hit a brick wall. The Cardinals’ quest for history came to an abrupt end. So, too, did the brilliant careers of Dilfer and Stevenson, who emptied their proverbial tanks in an effort to fight another day.

As terrible and disruptive as the pandemic had been, the Cardinals’ “super seniors” found a silver lining. It was an opportunity to stay one more year with the program they loved and set it up for a promising future.

“Just another year to be a part of Louisville was just a blessing,” she said. “When I transferred here, I thought I was only going to get two years, but I’m so thankful I got a third.”

Added Dilfer: “Coming to Louisville was the best decision I ever made. And I am honored to be a part of a lot of history. But I am also excited to see Anna DeBeer and others carry it on. The best gift (the returning players) can give us is take it to the next level next year.”

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