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Wisconsin volleyball escapes Penn State as four No. 1 seeds reach Elite Eight

Wisconsin sophomore Julia Orzol makes a play during the Badgers' Sweet 16 women's volleyball match Thursday. (Ebony Cox/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Wisconsin volleyball was in control in Thursday night’s Sweet 16 match. Until it wasn’t.

With a two-set lead in the match, and a 21-18 in the third, the Badgers looked all but locked in to a spot in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. And then Penn State began to fight back.

The Nittany Lions rallied to win the third set. Then they won the fourth, forcing a fifth and deciding set on the Badgers’ home floor.

But in front of a home crowd of 7,229, the Badgers rebounded in the fifth in what head coach Kelly Sheffield called “as gritty of a performance” as he’d ever seen.

“I was in the huddle with these guys and you can just see it in the eyes, and out there on the court and how they were working with each other,” Sheffield said.

“I learned a lot about our team tonight, I think we all did,” he continued. “It was a rough night passing the ball, no doubt about it. And when you have that against an elite team, most of the time you’re in real trouble and you’re going to get run out of the gym.”

The reigning national champion Badgers, who have had a dominant season on the court, had not dropped a set all tournament until their match against Penn State.

“I think (it’s) how you respond, especially on the day when a team is coming at you with the most aggressive serves they have,” sophomore Julia Orzol said. “That prize at the end is high, and we all know it. Some days it’s not going to be perfect.”

Wisconsin next will take on Pittsburgh on Saturday. The Panthers advanced to the Elite Eight for the third straight season.

Joining the Badgers in the quarterfinals are all three other No. 1 seeds, Texas, Stanford and Louisville. No. 3 Oregon and No. 3 Ohio State are the lowest seeds remaining in the tournament, and those teams will face Louisville and Texas, respectively.

San Diego, with a win over Kentucky, earned its first-ever berth to the NCAA regional final. The Toreros will play nine-time NCAA champion Stanford, which is back into the Elite Eight for the first time since 2019.