#2 UCLA Men's Volleyball (20-3, 14-3)
Opponent: #4 Long Beach State (20-4, 14-3)
When: 7:00 PM PST, Saturday, March 26, 2016
Where: Walter Pyramid, Long Beach, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Video: Long Beach State Live Stream
Live Stats: Long Beach State GameTracker
On Thursday night, the Bruins began the final three weeks of the regular season. In that span, UCLA's schedule includes a game against #4 Long Beach State, a pair of matches against #3 BYU, a contest against #5 Stanford, and a season-ending tilt with #6 Pepperdine. It's a series of games that perfectly prepares the Bruins for the postseason.
UCLA has already clinched a spot in the conference tournament. However, as we've seen in previous seasons, doing well in the MPSF Tournament is crucial in earning one of the two NCAA at-large bids, and doing well in the MPSF tourney is substantially influenced by seeding. Therefore, for UCLA to maximize its chances of playing in the NCAA Tournament this season, the Bruins need to treat each of their remaining contests as must-win games.
So far so good. On Thursday, UCLA came back from a two week layoff to beat an underrated Cal State Northridge team that had previously upset the 49ers. As has happened far too many times this season, the Bruins started slowly and dropped the first set. After bouncing back to claim the second set, UCLA came up short in set 3. The Bruins played their best volleyball of the night after that, winning sets 4 and 5 with ease. Final set scores were 19-25, 25-20, 23-25, 25-16, 15-7.
One of the reasons the Bruins struggled against CSUN is that their terrific serving game was far from terrific. UCLA's three aces were more than offset by 23 serving errors. Another reason the Bruins weren't at their best is that junior MB Mitch Stahl didn't play. Eric Sprague was adequate as a substitute, but the UCLA middle attack had less bite without Stahl.
UCLA's attack was led by outside hitters JT Hatch and Jake Arnitz with 20 and 16 kills, respectively. MB Oliver Martin registered 8 kills while hitting a team-leading .583.
As usual, freshman Micah Ma'a turned in a stat sheet stuffing performance: 9 kills, 27 assists, 6 digs and 8 block assists. Martin also contributed 8 block assists, and freshman Davis Gillett paced UCLA with 15 digs.
While the Bruins were edging the Matadors in their first game of the week, the 49ers were sweeping #7 UC Santa Barbara. In fact, Long Beach State crushed Santa Barbara; the 49ers hit .425 for the match, and had nearly as many aces (9) as serving errors (11). Obviously Long Beach State recovered well from their upset loss to CSUN last week.
UCLA had trouble containing TJ DeFalco in the first meeting of the year with LBSU. DeFalco hammered 21 kills that day in a match that went to five sets before the Bruins eked out a win. Set scores on that occasion were 23-25, 22-25, 25-19, 25-22, 15-13.
The scores indicate not only how close the match was that day but also how evenly matched the two teams are. The 49ers rely on their tremendous freshman class, which features starters OH TJ DeFalco, OPP Kyle Ensing, and setter Josh Tuaniga. The other key player for Long Beach State is senior middle blocker Taylor Gregory. Although Gregory didn't have a standout game when the teams met in January, he's a very effective attacker when the 49ers pass well enough to run their middle attack.
As is often the case, the team that passes better tonight will likely win. Since the game is being played in Long Beach, the 49ers have to be considered a slight favorite, but there really isn't a lot separating these two teams in terms of talent. It should be a terrific match to watch, and of course, the outcome may have serious implications for both teams as they try to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.