NCAA volleyball reaction: Wisconsin-Louisville deliver all-time great match, Nebraska upsets Pittsburgh

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It’s an all-Big Ten final.

No. 4 Wisconsin will play No. 10 Nebraska at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night in the NCAA Division I women’s volleyball championship match. The Badgers earned their spot in their second NCAA final in three seasons by knocking off No. 1 and previously unbeaten Louisville, while the Cornhuskers defeated No. 3 Pittsburgh to make their 10th final in program history — and first since 2018.

Beginning a little after 7:10 p.m. and not ending until close to 1 a.m., the high level of intensity and talent of a final four setting was evident throughout the two games. Columbus was treated to two of the more captivating matches in recent tournament history and saw another team's remarkable comeback.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the highlights of Thursday’s national semifinal matches.

Wisconsin beats Louisville in five-set thriller

Wisconsin Badgers players celebrate their fifth set win over the Louisville Cardinals in the NCAA volleyball championship final four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.
Wisconsin Badgers players celebrate their fifth set win over the Louisville Cardinals in the NCAA volleyball championship final four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

The first semifinal between Wisconsin and Louisville might’ve had the two best teams in the country. No one would have second-guessed that after watching an electrifying back-and-forth match that ended in the Badgers winning 25-23, 15-25, 25-21, 23-25, 15-9.

The first set played out with neither team taking more than a two-point lead until Wisconsin's 19-16 edge. But after the Badgers took the opening set, Louisville outside hitter Anna DeBeer went off for seven of her 20 kills in the second set to reclaim momentum. Wisconsin looked dead, down 19-17 in the third set before middle blocker Anna Smrek willed the Badgers back to a third-set victory.

The Cardinals looked like they would roll to a fifth set with a 15-11 lead. But middle blocker Dana Rettke and outside hitter Grace Loberg reclaimed the lead for the Badgers at 20-19. Both teams made clutch defensive plays, until Louisville outside hitter Claire Chaussee and defensive specialist Ceci Rush had two straight points to finally force a fifth set.

During that moment, Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said he told Rettke, libero Lauren Barnes and setter Sydney Hilley, his group of seniors who returned an extra year when they could’ve left, “This is why you came back, for moments like these.”

The three of them seized the fifth set, with Smrek finishing the final point to give Louisville the lone blemish on its spectacular season.

"In a rank of matches, that was all-time,” Barnes said. “That was two teams battling it out."

Wisconsin Badgers celebrate a point during the NCAA volleyball championship final four against the Louisville Cardinals at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.
Wisconsin Badgers celebrate a point during the NCAA volleyball championship final four against the Louisville Cardinals at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

Louisville did an excellent job of slowing down Rettke, a five-time first-team All-American who hit just .200 for the game after entering hitting .447 this season. But Smrek was unstoppable, picking up 20 kills with only one error on 27 swings. Hilley and Louisville’s Tori Dilfer put on a setting clinic with their distribution. Louisville middle blocker Anna Stevenson was excellent, with 12 kills and two errors on 25 swings and eight blocks.

It’s all a bit harsh to see the Cardinals’ season end in a game they mostly played very well.

"I wanted our team to be a little tougher down the stretch in game five and a little more aggressive,” Louisville coach Dani Busboom-Kelly said. “We started tipping a little bit and making some uncharacteristic errors. That wasn't us. But when it comes to this match, I don't think there's much I would change.”

Nebraska moves on with win over Pittsburgh

Nebraska Cornhuskers players celebrate their win over the Pitt Panthers in the NCAA volleyball championship final four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.
Nebraska Cornhuskers players celebrate their win over the Pitt Panthers in the NCAA volleyball championship final four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.

Nebraska coach John Cook said he thought his team was in trouble, maybe in danger of being swept.

The Huskers, however, shook off a dominant first set by Pittsburgh and convincingly beat the ACC runner-up 3-1 (16-25, 25-17,25-20, 25-22).

"I was little worried it could be a fast night, but we hung in there,” Cook said. “Our team made some adjustments, made adjustments to Pittsburgh's tempo and I thought as the match went on we just got stronger and stronger.”

The biggest factor in the game Nebraska stopping Pittsburgh’s dynamic attack. Outside of middle blocker Serena Gray, who hit .474 with 11 kills, Pittsburgh’s top three outside hitters Kayla Lund, Leketor Member-Meneh and Chinaza Ndee all hit .150 or lower. Lund said the low hitting percentage had more to do with Pitt having an off night rather than being dominated by Nebraska’s defense.

Nebraska middle blocker Lauren Stivrins took over the match at the end. The Panthers battled back from down 18-14 in the fourth set to tie it at 20. Then Stivrins combined with Lindsay Krause for a massive block, followed by two kills and another block on Lund to clinch the Huskers’ spot in Saturday’s final.

Nebraska Cornhuskers outside hitter Madi Kubik (10) hits over Pitt Panthers Chinaza Ndee (5) and Chiamaka Nwokolo (20) during the NCAA volleyball championship final four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.
Nebraska Cornhuskers outside hitter Madi Kubik (10) hits over Pitt Panthers Chinaza Ndee (5) and Chiamaka Nwokolo (20) during the NCAA volleyball championship final four at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.

Stivrins also made a huge five-point run at the service line to take control of the third set.

Pittsburgh coach Dan Fisher said Nebraska won the serve-and-pass game, which threw off the rhythm of the Panthers' attack.

"When you're getting served at again, again and again you got be gritty," Lund said. "I don't think we showed enough grit tonight."

Nebraska was the runner-up in 2018. Wisconsin lost in the final in 2019. Both have a shot at redemption.

"I think we're more prepared and ready than we've ever been," Stivrins said. "We're ready to step up."

jmyers@dispatch.com

@_jcmyers

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Takeaways: Biggest moments from NCAA volleyball final four