Twelve-seed Wisconsin relentless in charge to national title match
SEATTLE -- It was the fourth set, tied 21-21. Underdog Wisconsin led defending national champion two sets to one, and had refused to allow the Longhorns to pull away in set 4.
The Badgers’ Ellen Chapman sent a laser serve across the net, continuing a match-long pattern of tough Wisconsin serving. Although Texas struggled during the rally, it won the point when Wisconsin’s Deme Morales pushed an ill-advised tip attempt into the net. Texas now had the lead.
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“It's not like hitting in the net is anything new,” Morales said. "I just want the next set to come to me so I'm not stuck in a rut.”
At 5-foot-7, Morales is one of the shortest outside hitters in Division I. And it would have been easy, after the tip error, for Wisconsin setter Lauren Carlini to look elsewhere. Instead, she kept feeding Morales, just as her hitter—and her coach—wanted. On the very next rally, it was once again Carlini-to-Morales, this time for a kill. And—as it had been all night—it resulted in a kill against much the much taller Texas block.
“Deme’s talented,” Carlini said. “When she gets blocked, it doesn't faze her. Everyone in the huddle, it's like: Keep swinging. We've got you covered.”
Wisconsin’s stunning, decisive upset against top-seeded Texas was built on aggressive swings and relentlessly tough serves. Time and again, Chapman, Carlini and especially libero Annemarie Hickey sent flat, hard serves at Texas passers, forcing the Longhorns’ setters to scramble, and allowing Badger defenders to either block or dig the Texas attack. For the night, powerful Texas hit just .156, even as its own blockers recorded 19 stuffs.
“If you would have told me Wisconsin hits .131 and we have 19 stuff blocks,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said, ”I'm saying we're winning that 99 percent of the time.”
But, Carlini, just a freshman, made a point of setting hitters right away after they were blocked or made a hitting error, which seemed to catch Texas off guard. That built confidence, and allowed Wisconsin to spread its attack across four hitters. By contrast, Texas relied increasingly on Haley Eckerman, as usually-reliable Khat Bell and Bailey Webster piled up a string of hitting errors.
"We just never got comfortable out there,” Elliott said. “It looked like it was the first match of the season.”
“We might have set a world record tonight on the number of times we got blocked,” Sheffield said. “But when we dug the ball and got the ball past their block, we were able to win those rallies.”
Even after letting two third-set match points slip away to force a fourth frame, Wisconsin players stayed loose.
“We're just a bunch of ballers out there,” Chapman said, “and our back court is going to keep hitting those hard hits that they keep putting at us. And just never giving up on those balls is what set us apart from them, I think.”
So when Texas tied the score at 23, and Morales was still in the front row, Carlini knew where to go. The final two points were left-side kills, both by Morales, both off the block.
“Man, couldn't be more proud of these guys,” Sheffield said. “We were rock solid tonight.”