When: Saturday, April 12, 7 PM PDT
Where: Wooden Center
Listen: Bruin Audio
Watch.: Bruin Video
The tenth-ranked Bruins close out their conference season with a home match against #2 BYU. With a berth in the MPSF conference tournament on the line for the Bruins, tonight's match has the feel of a playoff game. Although UCLA can qualify for the tournament with a Hawai'i loss to Pepperdine, the Bruins won't want to rely on favorable results elsewhere. Since the Bruins have never failed to qualify for the postseason in the history of the men's volleyball program, the importance of tonight's match can't be overstated. For more details on the Bruins' precarious position in the conference, I've given an overview of MPSF conference tournament scenarios here.
UCLA (14-9, 17-10) is currently tied for fifth, while BYU (18-5, 18-7) has sole possession of first. However, the Cougars' first place position is built on the back of its huge home court advantage; BYU is undefeated in Provo (11-0), but the Cougars are a very ordinary 7-7 on the road. BYU is also slumping in the last two weeks of the conference season--after dropping 2 matches in Honolulu, BYU fell in four sets against UCSB yesterday. In other words, BYU is definitely beatable, but they will be anxious to snap their losing streak before the MPSF tournament begins.
The Bruins are coming off an impressive sweep of Cal Baptist on Thursday. After months of experimenting with different lineups with his injury-plagued squad, Coach Speraw has found a lineup that is better defensively while remaining explosive on offense. Against Cal Baptist, the Bruins were incredibly efficient in attack, hitting 0.522 for the match. Steve O'Dell's distribution was fantastic too, with four Bruins reaching double-digits in kills. Gonzalo Quiroga led the Bruins with 18 kills, while Robart Page and Spencer Rowe contributed 16 kills and Mitch Stahl added 10. The Bruins serving showed improvement too, registering 5 aces and committing just 12 errors. Even though Jackson Bantle's match statistics aren't particularly impressive, his contribution (as the new libero) to the defensive effort shouldn't be overlooked. He made several impressive digs to extend rallies and he is doing a terrific job organizing the Bruins defensively.
UCLA will have to contain BYU outside attacker Taylor Sander to beat the Cougars. In addition to being one of the best hitters in the country, Sander has almost as many kills as the rest of the BYU starters combined. The Bruins have been vulnerable to good outside attacks this season, so it will be interesting to see if having Spencer Rowe playing opposite now will help UCLA slow BYU's wide attack. In last season's conference semifinal, BYU's Josue Rivera was an effective second option for the Cougars, so UCLA can't afford to focus too much on Sander.
UCLA needs to get off to a good start tonight. In spite of recent success, the Bruins have had far too many disappointments late in matches in the second half of the season, so the team probably doesn't have a lot of confidence in its ability to come from behind. If the Bruins win tonight, they will be in a good position to make a run at the conference tournament title. On the other hand, if the Bruins lose but back into an MPSF tournament spot, it's likely that their tournament appearance will be limited to a single match.
I'm optimistic that the Bruins will knock off BYU tonight and will earn the six seed in the conference tournament. This is the last home game for seniors Gonzalo Quiroga, Robart Page, and Spencer Rowe--I expect them to leave their last match at the Wooden Center as winners.
The official preview is here.