Somewhere between Sunday and Friday, the University of Wisconsin volleyball team discovered its mental toughness.
Coach Kelly Sheffield questioned his team’s intestinal fortitude after a dismal performance in a loss to Michigan on Sunday. And there were reasons to doubt it when the Badgers fell into a 0-2 hole Friday against Purdue.
But just when they most needed it, the No. 8 Badgers summoned up the resolve to rally for a five-set victory over No. 12 Purdue 16-25, 22-25, 25-23, 25-14, 15-10 at the UW Field House.
“I thought the story of the match was our grit,” Sheffield said. “We didn’t give up on ourselves. They just kept battling and battling and sticking together. To be able to be down 0-2 and come back against that top-notch of a team, I’m really proud of them.”
The Badgers (17-6, 10-5 Big Ten) could do little right in the first two sets and the Boilermakers (21-5, 10-5), riding a seven-match winning streak, appeared to be on their way to a sweep when they jumped out to a 9-3 lead in the third set.
But the Badgers battled back, taking an 18-14 lead with an 8-0 run that featured four kills by sophomore Grace Loberg and then holding off a Purdue rally.
The last two sets were all Badgers as they jumped out to a 14-5 lead in the fourth set and then grabbed a quick 4-1 lead in the fifth to complete their first comeback from a 0-2 deficit since knocking off No. 2 Texas on the road in 2016.
“Going into that third set we knew the only way we would win this game was with defense,” said junior libero Tiffany Clark, who had a match-high 25 digs. “They’re a really good team and we just had to be grittier than them. I think we all really stepped up and had that defensive mentality.”
That defensive mentality was reflected in Purdue’s hitting percentages, which went down in each set from .441 in the first to minus-.040 in the fifth. The Boilermakers were 6-0 in five-set matches before Friday.
The Badgers got contributions from up and down the lineup, as sophomore Dana Rettke led the way with 16 kills and Loberg, senior Tionna Williams and sophomore Molly Haggerty each had 12.
Haggerty was replaced in the starting lineup by redshirt freshman Mariah Whalen, but Haggerty returned in the second set and may have had her best match of the season.
“I’m really proud of Molly,” Sheffield said. “This was tough week for her not getting the start and to come in here and just really playing a big all-around game was fantastic.”
That might not always have been the case, Haggerty said.
“I think earlier in my career I would’ve responded differently,” she said. “I think I would’ve pouted and been a bad teammate if I didn’t start, but I think as I’ve grown as a player I’ve realized it’s all about how you respond to a challenge. Yeah, I didn’t start, but I wasn’t going to show to my team that I was upset or just doubt myself.”
Williams went through a similar process when she was subbed out early in the match but returned to make numerous big plays, including three blocks in the fifth set.
“I had a choice,” Williams said. “It wasn’t really what I’d hoped I’d start out playing. But I had a duty to my team and a responsibility to keep my attitude up and help (Danielle Hart) out when she went in and work my way back. I can either pout or I can help my teammates out.”
Hart, who later subbed in for Madison Duello on the right side, contributed five kills and four blocks in limited time.
Williams said the circumstances surrounding the match made it one of the biggest victories of her four-year career.
“It’s at the top for sure, coming back from 0-2 against a really great Purdue team having a great season,” she said. “That just shows our mental toughness and the grit and fight that this team has and we’re going to keep building on this the rest of the season.”
Purdue 25 25 23 14 10
Wisconsin 16 22 25 25 15
PURDUE (kills-digs-blocks) — Bush 2-9-5, Atkinson 26-14-2, Mohler 8-3-5, Johnson 5-0-6, Otec 0-8-0, Cleveland 5-1-4, Newton 17-3-4, Reisinger 0-9-0, Cuttino 0-0-0, Hornung 0-21-0, Terwilliger 0-0-0, Van Zelst 0-0-0. Totals 63-68-15.
WISCONSIN (kills-digs-blocks) — Hilley 1-10-4, Whalen 2-0-0, Williams 12-0-6, Duello 4-3-1, Rettke 16-4-2, Loberg 12-4-1, Dixon 0-0-0, Dodd 0-0-0, Clark 0-25-0, Hart 5-0-4, Dodge 0-7-0, Haggerty 12-11-0. Totals 64-64-10.
Hitting percentage — P .209, W .235. Aces — P 2 (Mohler, Hornung), W 2 (Clark, Haggerty). Assists — P 57 (Bush 51), W 59 (Hilley 59). Att. — 7,052.