Women’s volleyball to face UMBC in NCAA tournament

The No. 8-seeded Trojans are heading to Pittsburgh for their must-win post-season.

Junior setter Mia Tuaniga leads the Trojans in matches started, starting in 29 of the 30 total matches this season. She is fourth in the Pac-12 in assists with 1,157 and 21st in the conference in service aces with 31. (Ethan Thai / Daily Trojan)

Following a triumphant regular season, No. 8-seeded USC is set to make its second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. The Trojans will enter on a three-match losing streak after losing a thriller to rival UCLA in five sets. 

While USC (18-12, 12-8 Pac-12) has hit a rough spot in the season, the Trojans have a chance to redeem themselves in a “win or go home” setting if they can rebound from recent woes. In the first round, USC’s challenge will be the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers (17-7, 8-2 America East).

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USC finished fifth in a stacked Pac-12 conference. The losing streak is alarming — but one must consider the Trojans were faced with two of the nation’s best teams — then-No. 2 Stanford (26-3, 19-1 Pac-12) and then-No. 6 Oregon (26-5, 16-4 Pac-12). USC also had to deal with the absence of senior outside hitter Skylar Fields.

UMBC won the America East Conference for the fourth straight year and is riding high after winning its last six matches. To add to the Retrievers’ momentum, they haven’t dropped a single set in their last four matches and appear unstoppable heading into the tournament. However, their record can be deceiving; UMBC has no ranked wins this season and played six fewer matches than USC. 

“We kind of have the mindset of the ‘next one,’” said freshman outside hitter London Wijay in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “We learn from our mistakes, we’re happy we got into this tournament and we’re going to focus on our competition now. Those wins and losses are in the past.”

Wijay posted double-digit kills in each of USC’s last three matches. After stepping up for the Trojans all season, Wijay will get her first taste of postseason play at the collegiate level.

“It’s the people that push through this time that end up winning,” Wijay said.

For others, though, the NCAA tournament is nothing new. Fields, the Trojans’ leader in kills, recorded 14 in USC’s round one matchup win over High Point University last season. Fields will look to steer the Trojans back on track following the heartbreaking loss to UCLA, where she recorded a team-high 21 kills.

“I think we really took the time to dedicate all of our training to help us peak at the right time at the end of the season,” Fields said. “We’re hungry for the tournament, a lot of teams thrive when they play high-level competition and the team we’re going to be playing, [will] be a really great test for us.”

Junior setter Mia Tuaniga has also been a force for USC, as her precise dishes have generated chances for her teammates. Tuaniga is coming off a 51-assist performance against the Bruins, which was just shy of her season-high of 55 against Washington State. The setter is dealing and staying consistent at just the right time.

UMBC’s offensive attack has been led by the duo of graduate outside hitter Kamani Conteh and junior outside hitter Mia Bilusic, who have combined for almost half of the entire team’s total kills. On the defensive side, one Retriever to look out for is junior middle blocker Mila Ilieva, who leads the team in blocks and tallied nine in UMBC’s recent win over Bryant (19-12, 6-4 America East).

“Obviously, there’s more stress to it, but it doesn’t matter,” said Head Coach Brad Keller. “You always want to win every single match. And now it matters.”

USC has not performed well on the road this season, winning just a third of its 15 away matches. The Trojans must forget their past woes as the tournament’s neutral-site setting will surely be an adjustment.

“We’ve been through so many weird things, that I think we’re ready for whatever is going to be thrown at us,” Keller said. “We actually have an answer or a chance at whatever that is, so I feel good about that.”

In addition to road match issues, the Trojans must not let recent losses get in the way of the present. USC hasn’t won a national championship since 2003 but has a chance to find its way back to the top in its 39th ever NCAA tournament appearance.

The Trojans will commence tournament play Friday at 1 p.m. against UMBC at Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh.

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