STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It almost seemed too easy to be real. It was.
After dominating the first two sets, the University of Wisconsin volleyball team was on the brink of capturing the Big Ten Conference championship Friday night. But then the Badgers fell flat and Penn State rallied to pull out a five-set victory 19-25, 15-25, 25-12, 25-22, 15-11.
The No. 5 Badgers (21-6, 17-2 Big Ten) fell into a first-place tie with the No. 7 Nittany Lions (24-4, 17-2). UW can win a share of the title with a victory Saturday at Rutgers (8-22, 2-17) and still could win the title outright if Minnesota (22-5, 16-3) can knock off Penn State.
UW coach Kelly Sheffield was disappointed with his team’s inability to finish things off Friday, questioning its mental and physical toughness.
“I think sometimes when you’re playing as well as we were early on and dominating the score, really good teams are not going to lay down, they’re going to fight,” Sheffield said. “I thought they jumped up and got some points right out of the gate in the third and some of our players’ demeanors just totally changed.
“It was like they were expecting this to be easy or something and for the life of me I can’t figure that thing out.”
The Badgers certainly made it look easy in the first two sets, hitting .492 with 35 kills and just four hitting errors in 63 attempts. Junior Dana Rettke had 11 of her 15 kills in those first two sets.
But over the last three sets the Badgers hit just .033 with 25 kills and 22 errors in 91 swings.
After getting humbled in the second set, Penn State jumped out to a 10-5 lead in the third and never let up. The Nittany Lions finished that set out with a 7-0 run and then started out 7-0 in the fourth set.
The Badgers did manage to battle back and regain a one-point lead six times, the last one coming at 19-18. But the Nittany Lions responded with a 4-0 run to take control.
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Penn State grabbed ahold of the fifth set with a 5-0 run to take an 8-3 lead. UW got within 10-9 but couldn’t sustain a rally.
Sheffield noted several of his players were battling illnesses that kept them out of practice during the week, but didn’t accept that as an excuse.
“I still think you can have a little bit of courage in big moments,” he said. “We lost our courage behind the service line and (Penn State) was really in system the second part of the match. I think a switch happened with some people, where you’re playing not to lose rather than going after it and winning. When that happens you’re going to get stung.
“It was a great college volleyball match. A little irritated on our side but, man, Penn State showed an awful lot of fight.”
Junior Molly Haggerty led UW with 16 kills and Rettke had a career-high 13 blocks to go along with her 15 kills. Junior Grace Loberg had 11 kills but also had 10 attack errors. Senior Tiffany Clark led the defense with 20 digs.
“Hopefully, this is a really good learning thing,” Sheffield said. “We’re playing for a Big Ten title tomorrow. We’re not going to take that for granted.”
Wisconsin 25 25 12 22 11
Penn State 19 15 25 25 15
WISCONSIN (kills-digs-blocks) — Barnes 0-15-0, Hilley 1-11-5, Duello 8-4-2, Rettke 15-3-13, Hart 0-0-2, Haggerty 16-2-4, Ashburn 0-3-0, Clark 0-20-0, Dodge 0-3-0, Loberg 11-1-2. Totals 60-62-15.
PENN STATE (kills-digs-blocks) — Gray 13-3-5, Gorrell 13-2-4, Parker 12-10-4, Hord 11-0-6, Cathey 7-1-0, Blossom 5-10-3, Clark 1-0-0, Hampton 0-8-0, Sciorra 0-7-0, White 0-14-0, Hill 0-1-0, Holcomb 0-2-0, Peed 0-1-0. Totals 62-59-12.5.
Hitting percentage — W .221, PS .244. Aces — W 1 (Ashburn), PS 6 (Parker 2). Assists — W 58 (Hilley 53), PS 60 (Blossom 48). Att. — 4,927.