The University of Wisconsin volleyball team picked a good time to play its best match of the season.
The No. 13 Badgers overcame a slow start and roared back to blow out No. 5 Penn State 23-25, 25-23, 25-13, 25-13 before a sellout crowd at the UW Field House.
Junior Grace Loberg had a career high 21 kills to lead a balanced UW attack that dominated the Nittany Lions over the last 2½ sets to win consecutive matches against Penn State for the first time in program history.
After winning a tough first set, Penn State (9-2, 2-1 Big Ten) was up 17-12 in the second set when UW coach Kelly Sheffield called a timeout. When play resumed, Loberg got a kill and junior setter Sydney Hilley had back-to-back aces to trigger a 7-1 run that gave UW a lead. Penn State briefly regained a 21-20 lead, but the Badgers, who had struggled much of the year to finish off close sets, closed with a 5-2 run to even the match on a kill by Loberg.
From then on it was all UW (7-4, 3-0 Big Ten). After that timeout the Badgers outscored the Nittany Lions 63-32 the rest of the match.
“That’s obviously a good win,” Sheffield said. “But more than that, how we played is better than even the results.
“I thought our serving kicked into another gear in the second set. Those last two sets of holding them to about .050, those are pretty low numbers against a team that has as much offensive talent as they do. I thought defensively we were awfully good and we got better as the match went on.”
That’s the team many expected to see as the Badgers were picked to win the Big Ten Conference in the coaches’ preseason poll. But until Wednesday they had faltered against top level teams, going 0-4 against teams currently in the top 10.
“We talked about how we might have surprised some people tonight,” Loberg said. “But us as a team, we were not surprised at all. We work hard every day and we know what we’re capable of. I think we showed that tonight.”
The Badgers showed off a balanced attack as they hit .310 for the match against a defense that was holding opponents to a .158 mark over its first 11 matches.
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“I thought Syd did a really good job of keeping them off balance with who she was going to and the plays she was running,” Sheffield said. “I thought Grace was really aggressive and working what they were giving, working the entire court. And I thought Syd was awfully special, getting everybody involved and putting the hitters in good positions.”
Loberg’s 21 kills topped her previous high of 20 against Stanford during her freshman season. As Loberg put balls away, Hilley kept feeding her.
“It makes (my job) a lot easier,” Hilley said. “It’s like, all right Grace, here you go. Just keep giving her the ball. I saw some shots I haven’t seen out of her in a long time. That was really cool to see.”
Hilley also spread the ball around, as junior Dana Rettke had 14 kills and redshirt senior Madison Duello bounced back from an off-day against Indiana with 11 kills.
While the Badgers offense got in high gear, their defense was able to put the brakes on Penn State’s dynamic sophomore Jonni Parker. After getting nine kills in the first set, Parker was held to just six the rest of the way.
“We were just doing a better job of figuring out what she was trying to do,” Hilley said. “Molly (Haggerty) and Grace on the left side did a really good job of lining up the block and our defense in the backcourt really stepped it up. That’s something we’ve been working on, trying to make adjustments during the match and I thought we did a really good job of that today.”
Penn State 25 23 13 13
Wisconsin 23 25 25 25
PENN STATE (kills-digs-blocks) — Clark 0-0-0, Sciorra 0-0-0, White 0-15-0, Phegley 0-0-1, Parker 15-4-3, Gorrell 3-2-2, Holcomb 0-6-0, Blossom 2-10-0, Hampton 0-6-0, Gray 6-1-2, Peed 0-1-0, Cathey 10-1-1, Hord 10-1-5. Totals 46-47-8.
WISCONSIN (kills-digs-blocks) — Barnes 0-10-0, Hilley 2-10-2, Ashburn 0-12-0, Duello 11-2-4, Rettke 14-5-6, Clark 0-12-0, Hart 3-0-4, Dodge 0-3-0, Loberg 21-4-1, Haggerty 6-5-2. Totals 57-63-10.
Hitting percentage — PS .175, W .310. Aces — PS 2 (Gorrell, Gray), W 7 (Hilley 3). Assists — PS 47 (Blossom 37), W 54 (Hilley 46). Att. — 7,052.