Thursday, September 21

UCLA women’s volleyball to begin quest for NCAA title

Freshman outside hitter Mari Hole led the Bruins in Friday's sweep of Arizona with nine kills and a .500 clip.

Freshman outside hitter Mari Hole led the Bruins in Friday's sweep of Arizona with nine kills and a .500 clip. Tiffany Cheng

There were no surprises over the weekend for the UCLA women’s volleyball team.

As expected, the Bruins rolled over Arizona Friday and Arizona State Saturday in three sets each.

They also earned the eighth seed in the NCAA Tournament and will play their first two tournament matches at home.

In addition, eight Pac-10 teams made it into the 64-team postseason draw, no shock to UCLA coach Andy Banachowski.

“It’s something that we’ve known all along, that this conference is the best in the country, top to bottom,” he said. “The fact that we’ve gotten eight teams in just verifies how tough our conference is.”

The toughness of Pac-10 competitors was no problem this weekend for No. 9 UCLA (23-8, 13-5 Pac-10) as it swept No. 19 Arizona (19-10, 8-10) Friday and avenged its season-opening sweep to Arizona State (13-17, 3-15) with a senior night sweep of its own Saturday in Pauley Pavilion.

This weekend’s wins give the Bruins some added confidence at the end of the regular season, said redshirt senior opposite Kaitlin Sather.

Against Arizona, UCLA’s defense, the second-best in the Pac-10, held the Wildcats to .103 hitting percentage. The Bruins hit .369 and had just six errors.

Sophomore libero Lainey Gera blazed two service aces, leading UCLA’s dominant serving game.

The next day, the Sun Devils, who shocked UCLA in September, gave the Bruins a slight scare but were easily dismantled in just three sets.

Starting both of their seniors, Sather and opposite Emily Clements, the Bruins continued their hot serving, with Gera adding another pair of aces.

“It definitely gives us confidence, but it’s something we need to do, and we’re ready for the NCAAs,” she said.

And the main story of the weekend was Sunday’s NCAA Tournament selection show.

Sather, who had a total of 19 kills in the two wins this weekend, said after the selection show that she was “frustrated” with her team’s position in the draw. The Bruins, the second-highest seed in the Gainesville Region, would have to face No. 1-seed Penn State (32-0), who have dropped just five sets the entire season, in the regional final.

“We have a tough road to the Final Four, but at the same time, it’s going to make getting there that much sweeter, so, obviously you don’t want to see Penn State in the Regionals, but we have them so we’re going to do our best to take care of them there.”

The Bruins, Dicey McGraw added, are only focusing on their first-round opponent.

“It’s first Long Beach State,” the junior outside hitter said.

Sather agreed, adding that having Penn State at the top of their bracket proves to be a healthy piece of motivation.

“I think we’re an underdog, and we have a lot to prove, and we’ve got a lot of fight in our program, and there’s no better place to be than to knock the top off the totem pole,” she said.

With the regular season behind them, the Bruins are entering the NCAA tournament with a maturity and poise they lacked early in the season.

“It’s the end of a chapter of this year, and we’re starting a new chapter fresh,” Sather said. “It was two teams we should beat, and we beat them in three. That shows our maturity, because, in the beginning of the season, we were dropping games a lot, going to four and not coming out ready.”

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