USC concludes regular season on four-game win streak

With their final two matches coming during Thanksgiving week, the USC women’s volleyball team couldn’t be blamed for looking ahead to the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament its set to host over the next two weeks. Nevertheless, the squad took care of business and notched two more victories that will give them even more momentum heading into the playoffs.

The No. 7 Women of Troy (26-5, 16-4 Pac-12) dismantled rival UCLA on the road Wednesday night 3-0 (25-22, 25-11, 25-13) and then honored their senior class with another 3-0 sweep, this time knocking off Colorado (26-24, 25-14, 25-21) for their fourth straight win to conclude the regular season.

In her final regular season match, libero and captain Natalie Hagglund shone with 18 digs in addition to five assists and a service ace. Fellow senior middle blocker Alexis Olgard added eight kills at a .389 clip and four blocks, while outside hitter Sara Shaw registered five kills and five digs.

“I’ll miss them a lot when they’re gone. You really start appreciating them when you go in the huddle and they’re not there,” head coach Mick Haley said. “I expect to be here the next two weeks for four more matches so I don’t see this as their last match. I think this team is good enough to win and we want to stay with it.”

Against the Bruins, sophomore outside hitter Samantha Bricio and freshman counterpart Ebony Nwanebu each recorded 12 kills to lead the USC attack to its first sweep of UCLA since 2004. Olgard added eight kills from the middle and Hagglund was strong once again with 16 digs.

“It’s always good to get a win at their place and we had an incredible crowd,” Hagglund said. “We spread out our offense a lot so they didn’t know who to stop.”

As expected, the first frame was tight as USC fell behind 18-16. But the Women of Troy rattled off six consecutive points to go up 22-18 and staved off a Bruin comeback to go up 24-21 on a Bricio kill. UCLA saved a point but the Women of Troy finished it on an Nwanebu kill.

The second set was a marked difference, as USC went up by an incredible 23-9 margin before an Olgard kill sealed the set at 25-11. The third set was much of the same with USC taking leads of 17-7 and then 22-10 on another Olgard strike. A Bricio kill brought up match point at 24-12, and after the Bruins managed one last point, freshman outside hitter Elise Ruddins concluded the victory with her fourth and final kill.

“I think we may have had more fans here than the Bruins,” Haley said. “That support allowed our team to take another stride forward. Bricio and Nwanebu were terrific and the setters did a great job as well. We didn’t have a bad performance from anybody.”

USC again had a tough first set against the Buffs, who were relentless in their attack. After falling behind 16-12, the Women of Troy fought back to within 20-19, after which a Colorado error and a subsequent Bricio kill restored the USC lead at 21-20. More back-and-forth action ensued before a block and a kill by junior middle blocker Hannah Schraer ended the set 26-24.

The second set opened up for USC, which gained a 16-8 lead on a Bricio kill. Freshman libero Anne Marie Schmidt entered the match and knocked down an ace for a 22-11 lead. An Schraer block gave USC set point at 24-13 and after CU saved a point, USC took the set 25-14 on an error.

Olgard and Ruddins combined on a block to give USC a 13-9 lead in the final frame, and Bricio knocked down another strong kill to push the advantage to 16-12. The Buffaloes fought back to cut the deficit to 22-20, but consecutive kills by Nwanebu and Ruddins brought up match point at 24-20. Colorado earned a point but then committed an error to seal the set 25-21.

The win allowed USC to improve to a perfect 8-0 against Colorado since the Buffaloes joined the Pac-12 two years ago.

The victories put USC in a good position entering the NCAA Tournament, but Haley noted that the team will need to improve if it hopes to achieve success.

“We struggled to have a rhythm and be explosive the whole day,” Haley said. “It was our fourth match in eight days and the seniors were emotional. I’m happy with the trio of wins, but we can play better than that.”

USC was announced as the overall No. 6 seed by the NCAA committee on Sunday, and will kick off the tournament on Friday against New Hampshire.