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Women’s volleyball’s NCAA run halted by Michigan State in four-set loss

Sophomore middle blocker Zoë Nightingale and freshman defensive specialist Karly Drolson pictured here after UCLA's loss to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Sophomore middle blocker Zoë Nightingale and freshman defensive specialist Karly Drolson pictured here after UCLA's loss to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Katie Meyers

There were many times during the regular season when UCLA women’s volleyball team would start slow and put itself into an early hole.

There were many times when the Bruins would jump out to a big lead in a set, only to let the other team fight back and take it away from them.

There were many times when they would play like the defending champions in one game, only to look vulnerable the next time out.

All these flaws came back to bite them right when it mattered the most.

The seventh-seeded UCLA women’s volleyball team lost in four sets against an energized Michigan State team in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday night, bringing its run at a title defense to a screeching halt.

“Unfortunately the match was fair, all the little things that popped up during that match popped up all year long,” coach Michael Sealy said. “You can’t cheat the game.”

In the end, those little things were huge.

The Bruins looked lethargic at the start of Saturday’s match, and the Spartans took advantage. The defending national champions trailed by as many as 10 in what turned out to be a quick, alarming opening set.

The poor effort in the first set led Sealy to make a change at libero, subbing in freshman Karly Drolson. The move succeeded in kick-starting the Bruins, as they took a 20-14 lead in the second set, but it all went downhill from there. The Spartans started winning point after point, and eventually they stole the set in dramatic fashion.

“I think it’s just something we’ve struggled with all year, we get up by a lot and then when we hit 20, the other teams just go,” said sophomore setter Megan Moenoa. “I don’t know why, but we seem to hesitate and we get beat in those final five points of the game.”

Victory seemed like mission impossible from that point, but a strong showing in the third set kept the dream of defending the national championship alive. It turned out to be false hope, however, as the dethroning was complete in the fourth set.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the Bruins swept the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds, but the momentum needed for them to make another go at the national championship just never carried over.

“That was our season right there. … We never had flashes of sustained brilliance, we had flashes of things that looked really good, but it was never backed up by anything,” Sealy said. “Any time we made some kind of gain in some technical part of the game, whether it was on offense or defense, it was gone by the time we took practice two days later. We were never able to build on anything important, what happened in the last two hours is exactly what happened over the last four months.”

It was a disappointing end to the season for a great but ultimately flawed team. In the end, the little things that the Bruins struggled to fix all year proved to be too much to overcome.

Immediately after the match, the focus was less on the actual result and more on the three seniors who played their last game in a UCLA uniform: Rachael Kidder, Tabi Love and Bojana Todorovic.

“We’re thankful for everything we’ve done, but the biggest emotion we have right now is about our seniors graduating and us not playing with them anymore,” said junior middle blocker Mariana Aquino. “I told every single one of them that they have a bright future ahead.”

The sentiment was the same around the locker room.

“I just feel sad, sad that we didn’t get farther and sad that a lot of my really good friends are seniors,” Moenoa said. “Them leaving is a really tough loss.”

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