SEATTLE — Kelly Sheffield turned to his bench and pumped his fists as the court flooded with Wisconsin players after the Badgers became the lowest seeded team in NCAA volleyball history to reach the championship match.
What was expected to be a speed bump for top-seeded Texas on its way to the title game instead became a shining moment for the 12th-seeded Badgers when they upset the defending national champion Longhorns 3-1 on Thursday night.
“We believed that we could win this match. And I think that’s a big part of anytime you go into anything,” Sheffield said. “This has been a team that no matter who we played we believed, the players have believed that there’s a way to win.”
Wisconsin (28-9) took control early and held off the Longhorns 25-19, 25-18, 26-28, 25-23.
The Badgers will play No. 2 Penn State or No. 3 Washington in the championship match Saturday night.
“I don’t have any words right now. I couldn’t be prouder of our team,” Wisconsin setter Lauren Carlini said. “We wanted to show we’re here to stay and we’re not going down easy.”
The previous lowest seed to reach the championship game was Stanford at No. 11 in 2004. Wisconsin is the fifth team seeded 12th or lower to reach the national semifinals, but the first to earn a spot in the title match. The Badgers also advanced to the title match in 2000, losing to Nebraska.
Ellen Chapman had 17 kills, Deme Morales added 14 — including the final two points — as the Badgers ended Texas’ attempt to become the sixth school to win consecutive national titles.
Carlini had 50 assists and 12 digs, Dominique Thompson added 12 kills and the Badgers had seven aces to help overcome the size of Texas’ frontline. Wisconsin finished with 72 total digs and its ability to keep points alive flustered the Longhorns.
“I think they did a good job of that, challenging us to hit other spots and move the ball around and even when we were making a change they were making it too,” Texas’ Haley Eckerman said. ” … I think that flustered us a little bit because the balls that were normally getting scores weren’t.”
Texas (27-3) had won 23 straight matches since losing to Arizona State in early September.
Eckerman, the Big 12 Conference player of the year, led Texas with 17 kills, but also had nine hitting errors. The Longhorns hit .156 and no other player had double-digit kills. The Longhorns had won their previous 10 NCAA tournament matches.
“We haven’t done well all season long when we were expected to win,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said.
Having dropped the first two games for just the second time all season, Texas finally fought back in the third set to win 28-26. Texas fought off one match point and went ahead 27-26 on Eckerman’s kill, and on its third set point got a hitting error from Wisconsin to force a fourth game.
Wisconsin rallied in the fourth set, pulling even at 14-14 when Carlini saved a ball that was nearly in the courtside seats and Thompson finished off the point. Texas pushed ahead 18-16 following a kill by Chiaka Ogbogu and block by Khat Bell causing Wisconsin to call a timeout. Eckerman’s kill pushed the Longhorns lead to three. Back came the Badgers, again pulling even at 21 on Courtney Thomas’ block.
After splitting points, Thomas’ block — after a one-handed dig by Carlini — gave Wisconsin a 23-22 lead. Molly McCage answered for Texas, but a kill by Morales gave Wisconsin its second match point. This time the Badgers finished it off on Morales’ kill setting off a wild celebration on the court.
“We’re just ballers,” Morales said. “We go out and we play. Let the cards fall where they may. I don’t think anyone is happier than us right now.”