COLUMBUS, Ohio (WDRB) -- Nobody's perfect. Not this year in college volleyball, not after the University of Louisville volleyball suffered its first and only defeat in its first-ever game in the NCAA Final Four.
The Cardinals faced a Wisconsin team making its third straight trip to the national semifinals, and despite showing much of the trademark poise that carried it to a record season, poise that enabled it to face elimination in the fourth set and dig deep to force a fifth, the Cards fell to a big-hitting Wisconsin team led by two of the biggest players in the game.
Anna Smrek, a 6-foot-9-inch freshman middle blocker, was the hero for the Badgers, smashing home 20 kills with a .704 hitting percentage, including a couple in the decisive final points of the third. And Dana Rettke, a five-time All-American, banged home 14 kills and had eight blocks.
"I'm really proud of this team and the way we battled tonight," Louisville coach Dani Busboom Kelly said. "And this is really a tough moment. This is just a team that you could be with forever. There's no burnout. There's nobody tired of each other. It's just one of those really special groups that you just can't -- you just never want it to end. So, it's hard to know that it's come to an end. We owe a lot to the seniors. We had an amazing senior class, and they're really the ones who got us here. But hats off to Wisconsin. They played really well in Game 5. And they really leaned on us. And I thought they broke us a little bit. So hopefully we can learn from that."
After losing the first set, Louisville roared back to win the second set, 25-15. But Wisconsin came out of the locker room and re-established itself to win the third.
Facing elimination for the first time in the NCAA Tournament, top-ranked Louisville opened the fourth set strong, winning the first two points, and maintained a lead until Wisconsin fought back to a 20-20 tie. Trailing 21-20 after a timeout, the Cardinals won back-to-back points to claim a 22-21 lead, and Wisconsin called timeout. The Badgers, as they had all game, came out of the timeout strong. They tied the game at 22, despite a Busboom Kelly challenge of a net foul.
The Badgers then served it long, and Louisville was back up a point. It would've been up two points, but an Anna Stevenson kill was ruled a net foul. Replay showed that it wasn't, but Busboom Kelly had used her final challenge on the previous play.
Instead of being up 24-22, the set was tied at 23 after a Louisville timeout.
But Louisville kept coming, and an ace by CeCi Rush gave the set to the Cardinals.
In the fifth, the teams were tied at 6-6 when Wisconsin won back-to-back points, and a pair of Louisville attack errors put the Badgers up four. A kill by Grade Loberg put Wisconsin up five, and another attack error brought them to match point.
After the loss, Louisville's players huddled on the court, then broke the huddle, went and congratulated Wisconsin, then came back and huddled again.
Louisville finishes the season 32-1. On Thursday, head coach Dani Busboom Kelly was named national coach of the year. Anna DeBeer led Louisville with 20 kills. Tori Dilfer had 49 assists in her final collegiate effort.
But Louisville's national championship dream will have to wait.
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