#2 UCLA Men’s Volleyball (9-2, 6-1)
Opponent: #4 BYU (8-2, 3-1)
When: Saturday, February 4, 2017, 6:00 PM PT
Where: Smith Fieldhouse, Provo, UT
Streaming Video: BYUTV
Live Stats: BYU StatBroadcast
Last night in the opening match of the Bruins' two-game series in Provo, UCLA was good, but not good enough. After dropping the first two sets narrowly, the Bruins stormed back to capture the following two sets relatively comfortably, to set up a deciding fifth set. UCLA led in the final set and even had match point, but as happened in the postseason last year and against Ohio State last month, the Bruins couldn't come up with crucial points when they needed them. BYU showed poise under pressure and UCLA didn't.
Of course it's not really as simple as that. The Bruins were handicapped from the opening serve, with All-Americans Mitch Stahl and Jake Arnitz on the bench with injuries. Sophomore OH Dylan Missry started in place of Arnitz and impressed throughout the match with his solid play. MB Oliver Martin replaced Stahl in the starting lineup, and like Missry, showed the quality and depth of the Bruins' bench. Nevertheless, it's extremely difficult to replace elite players like Stahl and Arnitz. UCLA lost key points in sets 1 and 2, and BYU took advantage of UCLA's lapses, edging out the Bruins 26-28 and 23-25 in the first two frames.
The Bruins kept fighting, though, and it paid off with big wins in the next two sets. UCLA had an errorless attack in the third set and benefitted from a series of aces by Micah Ma'a to claim a commanding 25-13 win. BYU closed the gap in the fourth set, but Ma'a unleashed another pair of aces to give the Bruins a cushion in the back end of the set, and UCLA hung on 25-22 to force a fifth set.
The final set began with a couple of errors by the Bruins to give the Cougars an early lead, forcing a timeout from Coach Speraw. Once again UCLA fought back and even held a two-point lead at 12-10, but the Bruins couldn't find a way to close out the match. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe it was lack of poise, or maybe it was something else altogether, but the Bruins managed to lose big points down the stretch.
As a result, UCLA was handed its first conference loss of the season. There are now four teams in the MPSF with a single conference loss: UCLA, BYU, Stanford, and Long Beach State. The MPSF title race became a lot tighter on Friday.
Before I discuss the implications of tonight's rematch, I want to again emphasize how well the Bruins' performed under the circumstances. UCLA outhit and outblocked BYU, and both Martin and Missry played admirably. In fact, Missry led the Bruins in kills with 13, although the UCLA attack was incredibly balanced with four other Bruins tallying 12 kills. Missry and Hatch contributed 10 digs apiece, Hagen Smith added nine digs, and Ma'a and Bantle each had eight. Ma'a led UCLA with six aces, and Gyimah registered half a dozen blocks.
On the Cougars' side of the net, the only truly outstanding performance was by Ben Patch. Patch hammered 28 kills, and looked unstoppable at times. He's the Cougars' go-to attacker whenever they need a point, and he certainly didn't let BYU down last night. The Bruins will have to find a way to slow Patch down tonight, particularly when he's hitting through 2.
Tonight's rematch isn't strictly a must-win game for UCLA, but the Bruins have to find a way to turn around their fortunes in Provo. A loss tonight will likely drop the Bruins into fourth place in the MPSF standings. With plenty of games yet to be played, the Bruins can fight their way back up the standings, but given the way the schedule breaks in 2017 and considering BYU's huge home court advantage, it will likely be difficult to catch the Cougars for the MPSF title.
However, in the long term, the bigger issue is the health of Arnitz and Stahl. It's unclear how long they'll be out of action, though I suspect it will be much longer before Arnitz (broken foot) plays again. Somehow, the Bruins have to find a way to get the job done without Arnitz and Stahl. Last night the effort was heroic but the result was ultimately disappointing. Let's hope for a better result tonight.