For most of Pac-12 volleyball play, it looked as though the season finale between No. 1 USC and No. 4 UCLA would decide who took the conference title.
The Bruins took some luster off that matchup last weekend by losing in an upset to Arizona, ceding the Pac-12 crown to the Women of Troy, but make no mistake — USC has plenty of motivation to conclude the regular season by beating its cross-town rivals.
In USC’s home opener earlier this year, UCLA came in front of a record crowd at the Galen Center and swept the Women of Troy to kick off conference play.
There’s been a bad taste in USC coach Mick Haley’s mouth ever since.
“We walked in here, put [5,385] people in the place, and stunk it up and lost 3-0,” Haley said. “We’re going to do everything we can to beat the Bruins, I guarantee that.”
Fortunately, even if that doesn’t happen, the Women of Troy are in great position to claim a No. 1 seed in the 64-team NCAA tournament.
Their title of the champions of the Pac-12, arguably the best volleyball conference in the nation, will no doubt hold weight with the selection committee.
Haley is ecstatic that his squad could earn that title a week earlier than expected.
“You can only go so long before you crash,” Haley said. “This [match] gives us a break before the [NCAA] tournament starts. We’ll be up for UCLA. We’ll play hard, we’ll try to win, but it’s not like we have to.”
Haley stressed that the team is preparing hard, but admits there is definitely more of a relaxed atmosphere in practice this week.
The preparation is fun, we’re looking forward to the match,” Haley said. “We would look forward to it anyway, but we won’t be as tired and we won’t be stressed.”
Since their loss to the Bruins, the Women of Troy have won 19 of their 20 matches, only losing on the road to No. 10 California, and enter the season finale on a seven-match winning streak.
UCLA, on the other hand, has been upset in two of their past four matches, skidding through the end of its schedule and essentially handing the Pac-12 title to USC.
Despite that, the two teams are evenly matched.
Both squads rank in the top five of the Pac-12 in hitting percentage, opponent hitting percentage, kills, assists and digs.
Even though the Bruins swept the Women of Troy in their last matchup, Haley is confident this time will be different.
“They were better organized than we were at that time,” Haley said. “I think we’re a much more patient team now, I think our lineup is solidified, I think we look comfortable.”
Senior outside hitter Alex Jupiter set the program record for kills (1,804) over last weekend against Arizona, and senior setter Kendall Bateman will look to put herself in the record books this weekend, needing only 40 assists to claim the school record.
“[Bateman] is the best, no matter what the record says,” Haley said. “With the number of three-set matches we’ve played this year, if she sets the record, that’s doubly special.”
USC travels to Westwood to play the Bruins on Friday at 5 p.m.