Wisconsin pulls off upset of No. 1 Texas
SEATTLE -- There is a certain personality you need to have if you're one of the "little people" in volleyball. You have to be fearless, scrappy, resilient, and all that stuff we associate with so-called underdogs.
"This is what we live for," Wisconsin's 5-foot-8 libero Annemarie Hickey said. "It's always fun for me when I go up against those big hitters."
By the standards of women's college volleyball, Wisconsin is a smallish team. And coach Kelly Sheffield joked the day before his Badgers met No. 1 seed Texas, "We're not going to grow any before tomorrow night."
Maybe not in physical stature, no. But in terms of their status as a program, the Badgers did grow Thursday night. They pulled off a major upset in the national semifinals, beating the defending champion Longhorns 3-1 at KeyArena.
The scores were 25-19, 25-18, 26-28, 25-23. Meaning, yes, the Badgers actually almost swept the Longhorns. But even after losing that tough third set, Wisconsin didn't have any emotional let-up. The Badgers didn't allow Texas to get them to a fifth set. They shut the door on a team many thought was going to repeat its NCAA title.
Sheffield's sense of humor was intact after this stunner, as he opened his post-match press conference saying, "Piece of cake."
He was kidding, of course. The Badgers knew they'd have to play their tails off to get this victory, and that's exactly what they did. They seized momentum from the very start, so much so that it actually looked as if they were the favorites.
The Longhorns had come into this on a 23-match winning streak; their last loss was Sept. 13 against Arizona State. They swept through Big 12 play without a defeat for the first time. While they dropped a set in both the NCAA tournament's second round and the round of 16, they were fantastic in their regional-final sweep of Nebraska.
How did the team that beat the Huskers so soundly on Nebraska's home court look so out of sync and flat in the national semifinals?
"That's what I'm wracking my brain about," Texas coach Jerriott Elliott said. "I was thinking [in the fourth set], that if we can get through this match, I know we're going to be great the next night. But we didn't find a way. Wisconsin did. And they played great."
Indeed, there will not be another night for the 2013 Longhorns, who have been ranked No. 1 much of the season and were the clear choice for the top seed. They had most of their players back from last season's title team, including Haley Eckerman, who won her second consecutive Big 12 player of the year award.
Contrast that with Wisconsin, which was 17-16 last season and didn't make the 2012 NCAA tournament field. Longtime coach Pete Waite resigned, and Sheffield took over. In his first meeting with them he told the Badgers that they could be good enough to win a national championship.
"When he came in, everything he was saying, we were all on board," Hickey said. "A coaching change is always hard, but we were all in with him. We trusted him.
"Something he does really well is put a lot of confidence in us. Before the match, he was telling us, 'If there's any point tonight where you aren't sure, you can look to me and I will give you strength. Because I believe we are going to win.' "
Even so, Hickey acknowledged that early in the season she didn't envision the Badgers being in this position.
"I don't think a lot of us thought we'd be where we are today," she said. "But once we hit that point in the season where we began to get confident, we started to think we could make it here."
The Badgers lost nine matches this season, eight of them in Big Ten play. As the No. 12 seed, Wisconsin was the lowest seeded team in the national semifinals, and the only one to make it this far without beating a seeded team.
Yet they were the ones who controlled this match. They did that with defense and excellent serving. The Badgers kept digging balls that looked like kills. That combined with some rather inexplicable hitting errors -- especially for such a powerful offensive team as Texas -- eroded the Longhorns' ability to dictate play.
"They did a good job at that, challenging us to hit other spots and move the ball around," Eckerman said of how the Badgers just kept getting digs to keep points alive. "And even when we did make a change, they were making that change, too. I think that flustered us a little bit, because the balls that are normally getting scores weren't."
Hickey, who led the Badgers with 21 digs, said, "We were just in the right spots a lot of the time. And we were really diving for balls we needed to get to. We battle hard. We think we're going against these players who can really hit the ball, we know they're going to get their kills. But we just keep pushing back."
Ellen Chapman led Wisconsin with 17 kills. Wisconsin won despite hitting only .131 for the match. The only thing Texas did particularly well Thursday was block the ball. At all other aspects, the Longhorns were decidedly below average, particularly for the high standards at which they normally play.
Afterward, Elliott looked like someone who'd just woken up from a very bad dream … only to discover it actually wasn't a dream. This really happened.
"It was one of those matches we just had to keep extending the match," Elliott said, "and hoping that we can get there and put some more pressure on Wisconsin. Because obviously we have a little more experience."
But that experience didn't end up mattering. In fact, Elliott said at times, the Longhorns looked as if this was their first match of the season. Instead, it was their last.
Wisconsin moves on to the second NCAA final in the program's history. The Badgers also got this far in 2000, when they lost to Nebraska. Saturday night against No. 2 seed Penn State -- which swept Washington in the second semifinal -- Wisconsin will be facing a team that's beaten it 3-0 twice this year and won the Big Ten title. The Nittany Lions will be seeking their program's sixth NCAA title.
So once again, Wisconsin will be the underdog. That's OK, though. It's seemed to work well for the Badgers so far.