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Michella Chester | NCAA.com | December 17, 2021

NCAA women's volleyball championship: Preview, how to watch Wisconsin vs. Nebraska

Wisconsin volleyball takes down undefeated Louisville, advances to championship

We have our 2021 DI women's volleyball national championship matchup, and its an all Big Ten battle. The four-seeded Wisconsin Badgers will take on 10-seed Nebraska for the trophy on at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, Dec. 18 on ESPN2. 

We will be covering the championship live here with updates, stats and analysis during the match, and you can stream the game here. 

Here is how each team fared in the national semifinals

Wisconsin pulled off a victory that no one has been able to do all season long, handing the top-seeded Louisville Cardinals their first loss of the season and ending their historic run. The matchup felt like a national title game. We saw the highest caliber of volleyball all season long and a five-set thriller for the books. The Cardinals hit .400 and .393 in the first and second sets and still lost the match. We knew these were two of the best teams in the nation and the winner was going to be whoever had the better outing. Well, there were a few Badgers that had quite the outings ...

Anna Smrek had an absolutely insane night. The freshman looked like a seasoned vet out there and caused so many issues for Louisville. She went up against a top-three blocking team and dominated. In the beginning of the season, it didn't look like Smrek would have much of a role at all in the rotation until the Badgers lost Danielle Hart to an ACL injury. So, she has gotten her chance and she has been unreal. Smrek posted 20 kills at a .741 clip against one of the best teams in the nation. She had just ONE error.

Dana Rettke posted 14 kills at a .200 clip with eight blocks and Grace Loberg chipped in 13 kills. Devyn Robinson played a big role towards the end of the match — she is always such a big spark for this Badgers team, and came up with a monumental block in the fifth. This offense was led by Sydney Hilley, who dished out a great game and posted 58 assists. In watching this team you can see how much chemistry the offense has. They looked like a machine out there, and if consistency was a problem earlier in the season, it is a non-issue now. 

Enough about the offense, though, I cannot say enough about Lauren Barnes. She led Wisconsin's defense and she alone made all the difference for Wisconsin. She was all over the court — digging, setting, passing, launching her body all over the floor to keep the ball alive. Barnes posted 19 digs on the match and deserves all the kudos there are. Her performance in the semifinal matchup was off the charts. 

Wisconsin volleyball takes down undefeated Louisville, advances to championship

In the second semifinal, Nebraska took down No. 4 Pitt in four sets for yet another upset to advance to the final. The hot streak continued for the Huskers, who previously downed the 2020 runner-up, Texas, on the Longhorns' home court. 

Nebraska opened up the first set of the match vs. Pitt completely flat, and the Panthers cruised to a 25-16 victory, dominating in pretty much every aspect of the game and putting the Huskers on their heels with their fast-paced offense and relentless attack from the left side. It looked like there might be a different outcome, but Nebraska turned on the jets and won the next three sets to advance. The name of the game for them was blocking, defense and serving. They hit just .246 on the match, but that is pretty typical for Nebraska this season.... they get it done in other ways. The Huskers put up 10 blocks and six service aces, and applied pressure on the Panthers all night long from the service line. In doing so, they slowed down Pitt's speedy offense and controlled Leketor Member-Meneh's game a bit. 

Madi Kubik led with 13 kills on .226 hitting and 13 digs, followed by Kayla Caffey who added 10 kills and four blocks. Lindsay Krause ended up having a great night with nine kills at a .368 clip and then Stivrins, the heart of this team, posted nine on .529 hitting and six blocks. She was so impressive and came alive late in the match to ensure her team was moving on. 

This team also has one of the best liberos in the nation, and Lexi Rodriguez proved why she was named a first-team All American this season. She too was all over the court and passed really well to keep the Huskers in-system whenever possible. 

Nebraska defeats Pitt in 4 sets, will play Wisconsin in championship

The championship matchup

For the first time since 2013, we have an all Big Ten matchup. We will see a championship game between two teams that know each other all too well. Wisconsin has already beaten the Huskers twice this season, but we have a new Nebraska team peaking at the right time. I give a lot of credit to John Cook for successfully coaching a team that struggled early on to eventually making it to the title game. 

There was a stretch in the beginning of the regular season where a lot of people might have doubted that Nebraska would be here. They started out the season missing Stivrins due to back injury, and even upon her return, they still hadn't peaked. Cook brought in one of the top freshman classes this season, and spent a large portion of the season trying them out in different positions and switching up the lineups. There was an even a streak of three straight losses to Utah, Stanford and Louisville where the Huskers dropped out of the top 10 entirely. In our conversation early in the season, Cook said that sometimes the freshmen were phenomenal, and sometimes they looked like freshman out there ... which was difficult to deal with as a coach. But boy has that changed. Cook found his lineup, and they are freshmen no more. 

Now, as John Cook said in the video below, they get to face their buddies again. 

Their "buddies" includes the 2021 National Player of the Year, Dana Rettke. She has been playing alongside Sydney Hilley, Grace Loberg, and Lauren Barnes for five years. This team fell short of the title in 2019 to Stanford and then fell in the semifinals last season to Texas. Now, they are back in the final game again and will have to face the familiar opponent of Nebraska. 

If you ask me how these teams match up, I think it makes for a fascinating showdown. Here is why — Wisconsin hits for a really high average. They rank No. 6 in the nation in hitting percentage, and Rettke has the third best hitting percentage in the nation. Nebraska hits for a much lower average, but makes up for it with defense. The Huskers rank in the top 10 in the NCAA in opponent hitting percentage. So one of the two will have to give here. 

Then, you have two of the best liberos in the country on both sides of the net. Nebraska's Lexi Rodriguez just won National Freshman of the Year, if that says anything at all. She leads a gritty floor defense, passes well, and keeps the ball alive. Those terms though are a great way to also describe the play of Lauren Barnes for Wisconsin. As I mentioned earlier, she has been the difference maker for the Badgers. What I think might happen is some crazy long rallies with these two in the backcourt. 

Next, you have super seniors that are looking to go out on a high note. That is going to add so much extra fire to this matchup. You can guarantee they are going to leave it all out there. 

And lastly, two incredible coaches. Cook has won quite a few titles in his time and got this team in national championship shape in just one season's time. Kelly Sheffield has brought his program to the semifinals for the past three seasons, and in my opinion he does a great job at recognizing talent in players that might not be the top recruits ... Rettke for one. He also found Julia Orzol when in Poland, and she has grown astronomically this season. 

So put that all together, and we should have a battle for the national championship ... and the Big Ten, you could say. 

Here is how they match up, statistically: 

Nebraska STAT WISCONSIN
26-7 Record  30-3
Def. No. 3 Pittsburgh, 3-1 Semifinal outcome Def. No. 1 Louisville, 3-2
.226 Hitting percentage .296
13.9 Kills per set 14.7
.147 Opponent hitting .162
2.5 Blocks per set 2.5
16.9 Digs per set 14.8
177/232 Aces/Service errors 171/244
Madi Kubik, 393 (3.48 k/s) Kills leader Dana Rettke, 398 (3.46 k/s)
Nicklin Hames, 1,170 (10.73 a/s) Assist leader Sydney Hilley, 1,407 (12.03 a/s)
Lexi Rodriguez, 511 (4.41 d/s) Digs leader Lauren Barnes, 500 (4.27 d/s)

Wisconsin's and Nebraska's histories in the title game

The Huskers are looking for their sixth national championship. Four of those titles were won under Cook, with the last championship in 2017 over Florida. They have played in the national championship nine times as a program. 

Wisconsin, on the other hand, is looking for its first national championship. The Badgers reached the title game three previous times in program history, but have never walked away with the trophy. They are back in the national championship game after losing to Stanford in 2019 with a lot of the same players. 

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