On paper, the No. 6 Oregon volleyball squad’s 3-0 defeat of 7th-ranked UCLA at Matthew Knight Arena was not their finest hour. The neck-and-neck set scores from the game – 26-24, 25-23, and 25-21 – look rather lackluster when compared to the double-digit margins of victory the Ducks posted in several of their other wins this season, and their performance in the game was marred by multiple errors.
But coming as it does at the tail end of a difficult month which has seen Oregon lose three of its last seven matches, defeating UCLA may well prove to be one of the team’s most important wins of the season. After all, it’s one thing to annihilate a top-ranked opponent early in the season when you’re firing on all cylinders, but discovering that you have the talent and resilience to edge out a formidable adversary later on when you aren’t playing your best is the sort of confidence booster that turns great teams into championship contenders.
“This was difficult,” said Oregon head coach Jim Moore afterwards. “Driving back all [Saturday] night after Pullman [Washington] . . . we didn’t really do very much yesterday, just kind of handled the ball – no team stuff, we just talked about what we needed to do and just handled the ball a little bit. This was tough, and they pulled it off, so I’m happy for them.”
“We actually said ‘there’s no way we’re out of here in three,’ so we’re definitely excited,” said outside hitter Alaina Bergsma. “We knew it was going to be really close matches. They have a really good team, and we’re just happy to come away with a W.”
For the senior classmen on the team, the game was also the final regular season match of their college careers. To mark the occasion, Bergsma along with libero Haley Jacob, defensive specialist Kellie Kawasaki, and outside hitter Katherine Fischer were honored in a pre-game senior night ceremony in which each player was accompanied out onto the court by their parents and presented with a bouquet of Ducks-yellow flowers by coach Moore while the fans in attendance cheered their appreciation.
“I think we were all trying to not be emotional because of our senior night,” admitted Bergsma, “[so] we maybe relaxed a little instead of getting our same fight and energy that we normally come out with.”
Whatever the reason, the Ducks got off to a sluggish start, which the Bruins took full advantage of by jumping out to a quick 3-8 lead. However, after one of Coach Moore’s patented back-to-back timeout talks with his players (“I’ve got a little program that tells me to do that,” joked Moore), the Ducks soon fought their way back to an 11-11 tie.
From that point on, the set became a back-and-forth brawl featuring no less than five lead changes and eleven tie scores, the last coming at 24-24. Bruins outside hitter Tabi Love, who made life difficult for the Ducks all night long with her hitting prowess, had the dubious honor of being the lead scorer for both teams in the first set, earning 11 points for UCLA and giving away 5 to Oregon via errors.
Love and her teammates kept up the pressure in set two, but this time a strong hitting effort by Bergsma kept the visiting team from securing an early lead. Her assault was soon bolstered by scoring attacks from outside hitters Fischer and Liz Brenner and middle blocker Ariana Williams, but the Bruins gave as good as they got. The Ducks held the lead more often than their opponent, but not by much and rarely by more than two points before they were finally able to take the set thanks to a trio of kills by Fischer.
By contrast to the first two sets, UCLA never once held the lead in the third, but nevertheless still managed to keep the score close throughout largely on the strength of attacks by Love, outside hitter Rachael Kidder, and middle blocker Zoe Nightingale. Unfortunately for the Bruins, their best efforts were unable to match up to those of Bergsma, who appeared to have identified a weakness in visiting team’s defense just in front of the rear line of defenders and attacked it relentlessly. UCLA was able to tie the score late at 19-19, but was ultimately unable to prevent Oregon from taking the set not long thereafter.
Next up, the Ducks will travel up I-5 on Friday to face Oregon State in Corvallis for their regular season finale. After that, the games for the first round of the NCAA Division-I Tournament will be held between November 29th and December 2nd, but the brackets (and therefore who and where the Ducks will play next) have yet to be determined.