The USC women’s volleyball team was pushed to the limit by its Northern California rivals but triumphed both times, turning back Stanford and Cal to stretch their winning streak to eight games.
The Women of Troy defeated the Cardinal Friday night 3-0 (25-21, 25-15, 27-25) to end Stanford’s own eight-match winning streak and give USC coach Mick Haley his 1,100th career victory. They were pushed to a grueling five sets Sunday against the Bears but emerged victorious, winning 3-2 (28-26, 22-25, 25-11, 18-25, 15-13) to improve to 14-1 and remain unbeaten (4-0) in Pac-12 play.
“We started planning in the middle of the fourth set for a possibility of a fifth set against Cal,” head coach Mick Haley said. “I thought our seniors were great. They were focused and never got too excited or down. They stayed with it when they got their opportunities.”
The Women of Troy recorded 17 kills in the first set to down the Cardinal 25-21. Freshman outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu and sophomore outside hitter Samantha Bricio recorded four kills apiece while senior libero Natalie Hagglund notched eight digs. Senior middle blocker Alexis Olgard blocked a Stanford strike to seal the first frame 25-21.
USC applied the pressure in the second frame and won handily 25-15. The Women of Troy stormed out to a 15-8 lead and never looked back, going up 20-11 on a kill from senior outside hitter Sara Shaw and finishing the set on a kill from junior middle blocker Hannah Schraer.
The Cardinal looked to be running away with the third set after jumping out on top 18-11, but USC put together a thrilling comeback to take a 22-20 lead. A strong left-side kill by Nwanebu gave USC match point, but Stanford recovered to tie it 24-24. The Women of Troy ended any further drama, however, as back-to-back Stanford errors concluded the set 27-25 and the 1,100th career victory for Haley.
“You always have a goal going in of beating a team 3-0, and Stanford’s always a team that will bring their best,” Shaw said. “We’re excited that we beat them 3-0 especially after coming back in that third game.”
USC faced stiff competition from Cal to open the match — neither team built a lead of more than a couple of points. The Bears negated a USC set point at 24-22 and sparked a rally to go up 26-25 and put USC on its heels. After a timeout, Nwanebu took the set into her own hands, knocking down consecutive kills to restore USC’s match point at 27-26. Bricio ended the rally with a serve down the middle that Cal couldn’t handle, securing the first set 28-26.
The second set remained tight, with the two teams playing to a 13-13 tie. Cal pulled away to lead 19-16 and then 24-21 to bring up set point. USC couldn’t muster a rally this time, however, as a right-sight kill gave the Bears the set 25-22 and tied the match 1-1.
The Women of Troy recovered after the break, jumping ahead 11-7 on a Schraer kill to force a Cal timeout. Nwanebu knocked down back-to-back strikes and USC later went up by as much as 17-8 to force another Bears timeout. Back-to-back kills by junior outside hitter Emily Young and Olgard put USC up 24-11 before a Cal service error put the Women of Troy ahead 2-1 in the match.
The Bears turned the table on the hosts in the fourth set, going up 11-7 and winning the set 25-18 to become the first opponent to push USC to a fifth set this season. The Women of Troy saw their 10-5 lead evaporate as the Bears stormed back to tie it at 13-all in the deciding frame, but Olgard knocked down consecutive kills from the middle to seal the set 15-13 and put an end to a thrilling match.
Though the players spoke to the importance of getting a five-set match under their belts, Haley emphasized the need to reduce attacking errors to avoid reaching a tiebreaker in the first place.
“I think Cal slowed us down to a walk and we couldn’t get any intensity off them,” Haley said. “Not being able to generate any energy kept Cal close and we made more hitting errors tonight than we’ve made in a long time. We also kept them in the match with our serving errors.”
The Women of Troy will hit the road for the next four matches, beginning with a Friday night match against Oregon State.
Three Stars of the weekend:
3rd star: Samantha Bricio (27 kills, five aces)
2nd star: Alexis Olgard (24 kills, including game-winner against Cal)
1st star: Ebony Nwanebu (34 kills, .459 hitting percentage against Cal)
Nwanebu notched a team-high 21 kills against the Bears and hit .459. She also led all players Friday with 13 kills.
Olgard dropped nine kills and five blocks against Stanford before an impressive 15 kills Sunday against Cal. She hit above .500 both times and sealed the win Sunday with consecutive kills.
Bricio registered 27 kills in the two matches and also knocked down five service aces to continue her tear through the Pac-12.
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