With a raucous crowd and a dominant season thus far, the Trojans (21-2, 20-2) had momentum behind them.
“This is the first playoff match we’ve ever hosted in my time,” said senior setter Riley McKibbin. “It’s awesome to have so much support.”
With the odds stacked against them, the Bruins (16-15, 9-13) switched up their starting lineup, playing the 6-foot-9 Kyle Caldwell at setter, replacing Alex Scattereggia in an effort to bring in tougher serving and bigger blocking.
After the first set, it seemed to work. UCLA’s defense was rabid, evidenced by its 15 digs in the first set.
“When you’re fighting for your lives in the playoffs, anything can happen,” McKibbin said. “They caught us by surprise.”
Outside hitter Gonzalo Quiroga led the Bruin charge with 15 kills. Caldwell finished with nine kills for the night, most of them from the setter spot.
“They served huge with Caldwell and got us out of system,” said USC coach Bill Ferguson. “We were guessing what they were going to do lineup-wise so we were a little off.”
USC finished the first set with an atypically low .103 hitting average with seven errors.
Senior opposite Murphy Troy faced a strong double or triple block almost every time he attacked and struggled to unleash his usually dominant attack. He finished with 12 kills earned at a .242 rate.
“Our passing wasn’t as consistent as usual,” Ferguson said. “Murphy [Troy] saw a full block every time.”
Notions of an upset would be quelled, however.
Although the match wasn’t pretty, the Trojans’ cohesion and intensity helped them win the in-betweens, the chaotic plays, and eventually outlast the inconsistent and uncertain Bruins.
“We made too many mistakes in the first set,” Ciarelli said. “In the second, third and fourth set we cleaned it up. That was the key.”
Ciarelli led the match with 21 kills at a .375 rate, channeling his intensity and energy into a quick, powerful and crafty match.
“He’s a big time player and great in big matches,” Ferguson said. “He’s been on fire the last few weeks and doing every thing we need him to do.”
Shandrick led the match with six total blocks while helping to control UCLA’s physical middle blocking duo comprised of Thomas Amberg and Weston Dunlap.
“Those two control their offense,” Shandrick said. “We got some great touches and worked off of that.”
With Saturday’s victory, the Trojans will host UC Irvine in the semifinals next Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s the first home playoff win for USC in God-knows-how-long,” Ferguson said. “We’re one step closer to our ultimate goal.”