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NCAA Regional Semifinals: UCLA Women's Volleyball vs. Texas

UCLA is back in the NCAA Tournament's Round of 16. That's as far as the Bruins went last season. Can UCLA get past #3 Texas this afternoon to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2011?

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Kyle Okita/BruinsNation

UCLA Women's Volleyball

NCAA Tournament Regional Semifinals

Opponent: #3 Texas (27-2)

When: 5:00 PM PST, Friday, December 11, 2015

Where: Gregory Gym, Austin, TX

Audio: None

Video: ESPN3

Live StatsGameTracker

Official UCLA Match Preview | Match NotesTexas Match Preview

Austin Regional Tournament CentralNCAA Tournament Bracket

The 12th-ranked Bruins (25-7) are in Austin today for an NCAA Round of 16 matchup with the third-ranked Longhorns (27-2). As their upset of USC two weeks ago demonstrated, the Bruins are good enough to beat the best when they perform to their potential. However, as we've seen in the past four weeks, UCLA is prone to subpar performances. Against a team as good as Texas, anything less than their best will likely end the Bruins' season.

The Bruins Fight Back Against the Wolverines

In that respect, UCLA is somewhat fortunate to still be playing. The Bruins were subpar against the Wolverines, but after losing the first two sets, improved enough in the final three sets to earn a 3-2 comeback victory.

As Coach Sealy admitted after the match, the Bruins' ball control was poor. Michigan put the Bruins under pressure with its serve, and the Bruins' struggled again and again to make a decent pass to initiate their offense. However, UCLA grew stronger with each set, and middle blocker Claire Felix became unstoppable in latter stages.

Felix led the UCLA attack with 17 kills and a .500 hitting percentage. She also dominated at the net with seven blocks. Jessyka Ngauamo also had a solid overall game with 17 kills while hitting .229, 13 digs, and three aces. Reilly Buechler added 14 kills, including the game winner:

If you watch the above video clip, you'll see that even on match point, UCLA failed to make a good pass from Michigan's serve--and it wasn't a particularly tough serve. Fortunately, Zana Muno's set gave Buechler a chance to attack the ball, and Buechler used the block to score the final point.

As usual, Taylor Formico was outstanding in defense. Formico and Karly Drolson led the Bruins with 20 digs apiece, while Rachel Inouye and Zana Muno collected 13 and 12 digs, respectively.

Although there are no video highlights from UCLA's victory, UCLA Athletics has provided an attractive photo narrative.

Scouting the Longhorns

The Longhorns earned the third seed through consistency. The Big 12 may not be the strongest volleyball conference in the nation, but it's close. Even though the Pac-12 finished with twice as many teams as the Big 12 in the top-25 of the AVCA Coaches Poll, the Longhorns played plenty of NCAA Tournament teams, and in particular, faced a tough slate of non-conference opponents including #5 Nebraska, #13 Colorado State, and #16 Florida. The Longhorns also beat #9 Kansas twice in conference play, finishing first in the Big 12 with a 15-1 record. For what it's worth, Texas is ranked first in RPI, ahead of Southern Cal (3rd), Washington (9th), UCLA (11th), and Stanford (12th).

That said, after watching a handful of Texas matches this season, I rate the Longhorns lower than the Trojans and Huskies. And because they haven't faced more than one top-5 opponent this season, I'm not convinced that they are battle-tested for a deep tournament run.

There's no denying the individual talent on the Longhorn's roster, though. Texas placed five of its starters on the AVCA Southwest Region team, and five starters on the All-Big 12 First Team, along with a sixth player on the All-Big 12 Second Team and another on the All-Freshman Team. Texas also had the Big 12's Player of the Year in Amy Neal.

Senior Amy Neal may be only 5'9", but she is an efficient, high volume outside hitter. She led Texas with 4.29 kills/set and in serving with 0.47 aces/set. However, she's not a particularly strong blocker, and she's the weak link in service receive for the Longhorns.

Texas has a strong pair of middle blockers in junior Chiaka Ogbogu (6'2") and senior Molly McCage (6'3"). Ogbogu is the more productive of the two in attack (2.80 kills/set) and a marginally better blocker, but both are consistent performers.

The Longhorns' other outside attacking options are junior Paulina Prieto Cerame (6'2") and freshman Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani (6'4"). Prieto Cerame has been the more frequently used option in the Texas attack (2.98 kills/set), but both are efficient hitters. Furthermore, considering the Bruins' problems this season in matching up with teams with tall attackers on the outside, Prieto Cerame and Bedart-Ghani could be the key to the Longhorns' attack this afternoon.

Texas has a very good setter running its offense in junior Chloe Collins. However, Collins is just 5'7", so UCLA should be able to attack effectively through her whenever she's in the frontcourt.

The Longhorns use sophomore Cat McCoy at libero. She was a All-Big 12 Second Team performer in 2015 and was one of Texas' most effective servers.

Critical Decisions for Coach Sealy

Against Michigan, Coach Sealy made the decision to start Ryann Chandler at setter, in spite of the fact that she hadn't started a match in over two months. After losing the first set and trailing in the second set, Coach Sealy replaced Chandler with freshman Zana Muno. The fact that the Bruins came back to win the match doesn't mean that Chandler was responsible for the Bruins falling behind in the match, or that Muno was the difference between winning and losing. However, Coach Sealy's decision to start Chandler does raise questions.

In an interview with Matt Cummings at the Daily Bruin, Coach Sealy had this to say about his decision to replace Chandler when the Bruins were losing:

"Ryann mentally was setting the game plan really, really well, it's just we weren't clicking. The old adage in volleyball is if someone's playing bad, pull them. If everyone's playing bad, pull the setter - because it's the one position that can kind of affect everybody."

Coach Sealy is right about that. Conventional wisdom in volleyball says that the setter is responsible for the rhythm of the offense, and when things aren't clicking, the setter gets the hook. But conventional wisdom in volleyball also says don't mess with success--if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

So why did Coach Sealy start Ryann Chandler in such an important match when she hadn't started for over two months and the Bruins had established a good rhythm in the previous three matches with Zana Muno setting?

Furthermore, as Coach Sealy acknowledged, Muno is a significantly better blocker than Chandler, and that was a huge factor in the contest as Michigan's Caroline Knop--the Wolverine's leading attacker on the day--was matched up against Chandler and Muno. After hitting .385 in the first two sets, Knop hit .000 the rest of the way. The difference wasn't only a consequence of Muno replacing Chandler, but it was part of it.

Coach Sealy has a similar decision to make this afternoon. Texas has its own effective undersized outside hitter in 5'9" Amy Neal. Will Coach Sealy opt for what worked best against Michigan, or will he start Ryann Chandler again? At least this time, Chandler will have a recent start under her belt, so the likelihood that she will establish a rhythm with UCLA's hitters is greater.

Although I have great respect for Coach Sealy's ability to teach volleyball--in my opinion, he's one of the best technical coaches in the country--I have reservations about his game management. I'm not a fan of what I consider his overuse of defensive specialists. However, as I wrote earlier this season, whatever game management decisions he makes, it's up to him to make them work. Style points don't matter; wins and losses do.

Final Thoughts

Although Texas is the third-seed and is playing at home, the Bruins have a real chance this afternoon. Texas is somewhat overrated in my opinion, and UCLA's battle with the Wolverines has prepared them well for the Longhorns. If the Bruins pass the ball well and get Claire Felix early attacking opportunities, the Bruins have a good shot at upsetting Texas. And if they get past Texas, I like UCLA's odds of advancing to the Final Four.

One game at a time, though. In fact, the Bruins need to take one point at a time. UCLA can't afford to be wasteful today; every point is crucial. If the Bruins come prepared to claw and scratch for every point--to win ugly if necessary--then they have a chance to reach the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals for the first time since 2011, the year the Bruins won the championship.

Go BRUINS! Mess with Texas!