Wisconsin tops Louisville to reach NCAA volleyball final

Sports

Louisville’s Aiko Jones, right, spikes the ball in front of Wisconsin’s Grace Loberg, left, and Dana Rettke during a semifinal of the NCAA women’s college volleyball tournament Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Freshman Anna Smrek recorded her 20th kill on match point and No. 4 Wisconsin beat top-seeded and previously unbeaten Louisville 25-23, 15-25, 25-21, 23-25, 15-9 on Thursday night in the NCAA women’s volleyball semifinals.

Wisconsin (30-3), playing in its third straight semifinal, advances to its fourth championship match on Saturday. The Badgers lost to Nebraska in 2000, Penn State in 2013 and Stanford in 2019.

The size and experience of Wisconsin was too much for Louisville (32-1) in its first semifinal appearance.

Smrek, at 6-foot-9, posted a season-high in kills at a .741 clip — with just one error. Fellow big, and Wisconsin’s star senior, Dana Rettke added 14 kills with eight blocks and Grace Loberg had 13 kills.

Lauren Barnes led the defensive effort for Wisconsin with 19 digs. She was all over the court. Julia Orzol, the Big Ten freshman of the year, added nine kills and seven digs.

“In practice, all we keep talking about is staying high and swinging at every shot that you see open,” Smrek said. “When you have a settler like Sydney Hilley, she’s putting up great balls, there’s a lot to work with there.”

Wisconsin won the opening set in which neither team led by more than two points and both hit at .400 or above. Louisville broke open the second set with a 12-7 run, and extended it to 17-8 before handing Wisconsin its first dropped set of the tournament.

The Badgers had won 19 straight sets after sweeping tournament foes Colgate, FGCU, UCLA, and Minnesota.

Smrek helped Wisconsin to a third-set win as she reached a season-high in kills with 17 on 19 swings.

Ceci Rush had an ace serve to claim the fourth set for Louisville before getting surrounded by her teammates on the court in celebration. The Cardinals had to overcome a late violation by Anna Stevenson that tied it at 23.

The Badgers went on a 4-0 scoring run in the fifth set for a 9-6 lead and Devyn Robinson came up with a huge block to go up 11-8.

Anna DeBeer, who missed practice all week with a tight back and was questionable for the match, posted a season-high 20 kills for Louisville, the back-to-back ACC champs. Stevenson posted 14 kills on .360 hitting.

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