No. 5 USC shook off some sloppy offensive errors and relied on a powerful freshmen duo to turn back No. 7 UC Irvine, the two-time defending national champions, in a thrilling five-set victory (20-25, 25-21, 23-25, 25-19, 15-10) on Tuesday night.
“It feels good, [UC Irvine] is a heck of a team,” said USC head coach Bill Ferguson. “Our two programs have been battling for years now, and it’s always a good night of volleyball when our two teams play.”
Outside hitter Lucas Yoder continued his impressive freshman campaign, leading the Trojans (3-0, 2-0) with 21 kills. Freshman middle blocker Andy Benesh was nearly flawless, recording 15 kills with 0 errors on 19 attempts for a stellar .789 hitting percentage.
The Trojans certainly weren’t mistake-free, as they committed 30 errors compared to just 21 from the Anteaters (3-3, 0-2). But staring down a 2-1 deficit after three sets, the Trojans beared down and logged just four errors in the last two sets combined to pull off the comeback.
“That was a very fun game,” Yoder said. “We didn’t play too well the first couple sets. UCI is a great team. But we got used to them and started playing better the next couple games to pull it out in five.”
Both teams held strong in the fourth set, amazingly splitting the frame’s first 16 points one-by-one. USC finally grabbed the frame’s first multi-point lead at 10-8, but the Anteaters hung tough and eventually cut the lead to 18-17. The Trojans finished strong with a 7-2 run, punctuated on a set point that featured multiple point-saving digs before the Anteaters’ Jeremy Dejno uncorked an unforced error to let USC tie the match at two sets apiece.
The fifth set started off inauspiciously for USC as Irvine held a 6-5 lead. But timely blocks by senior setter Micah Christenson and Benesh helped the Trojans steal the lead at 9-8. Yoder extended the lead with consecutive kills, sparking a 6-2 run to close the match.
Junior outside hitter Cristian Rivera ended the match emphatically with a booming kill on the right side that the Anteaters attempted to block but could only knock out of bounds for the winning point.
“Rivera gave us a huge lift,” Ferguson said. “He hit for gigantic numbers and was very efficient.”
Rivera finished with six kills and a .417 hitting percentage. Feathers, another key reserve, had 10 kills and a .562 hitting percentage to help overcome a nightmarish offensive performance from senior outside hitter Maddison McKibbin.
McKibbin logged just five kills compared to nine errors (-.211 hitting percentage), and was benched for most of the pivotal fifth set after starting the match over Rivera.
But Ferguson was nonplussed after the match, and expressed confidence in his rotation.
“Madison is in there to dig, block and play defense,” Ferguson said. “Our other [opposite hitters] are a little more offensive-minded. We tried to go defensive-minded at first, but we needed to get some kills on that side of the court to loosen it up for [Alex] Slaught and Yoder on the left side.”
And considering the showing of Benesh and Feathers in the middle, there wasn’t too much for Ferguson to complain about.
“We have arguably the best middle blocking core in the country,” Ferguson said. “We ran out the middle, spread out their blockers and hit [UC Irvine] in the seams … It was nice to beat [UC Irvine] in the clutch.”