The No. 2 UCLA beach volleyball team (29-4) broke No. 1 USC’s (34-1) 62 dual winning streak in the Pac-12 championship semifinal Friday.
The Bruins had handed the Trojans their first defeat in 413 days Friday at Bear Down Beach in Tucson, Arizona, winning by a set score of 3-2. UCLA cheered and celebrated when senior Jordan Anderson chipped a ball to the deep left corner of the court to win the game 22-20, 22-20 and the match for the team.
However, hours later, defending champions USC turned the tables in the final with a similar scoreline after they battled out of the contenders’ bracket to reach the final.
The match boiled down to the third set of the deciding game after the teams tied 2-2. UCLA’s attempt to repeat its feat in the morning was denied when USC’s Sophie Bukovec smashed the ball too fast for UCLA graduate student Kamila Tan to handle to win the final point and the game 21-10, 18-21, 15-13.
Along the journey to the semifinal, UCLA beat both No. 19 Washington (11-7) and No. 8 Arizona (15-8) 4-1.
Coach Stein Metzger was happy with the overall performance of the team, especially with how the players adjusted to the swirling changing wind and the hard surface.
“It’s harder to jump, more control is more important,” Metzger said. “This is more of a fast beach, there is a lot of hitting and physical play. … The fact that we played well in that worked for us and contributed quite a bit to our success.”
Metzger said he believed his team has been confident they could beat USC all year and it was only a matter of time before they broke the Trojans’ winning streak.
The difference of results between the two matches came down to court three. Junior Elise Zappia and freshman Torrey Van Winden had earlier beat their opponents 21-18, 21-13 before falling to them 21-14, 21-18 in the afternoon.
“I have to hand it to USC in the 3s position – they played exceptionally well in that match,” Metzger said. “Typically our 3s and 4s have been really strong for us all year long, so we usually count on that.”
Zappia said she was glad the team overcome the mental barrier of “Can we do it,” which she saw as an exciting mentality to have going into the NCAA Tournament. She said strong service and defense, which the pair have been focusing on in training, made the difference in the games.
“The first match we served really tough and made a lot of defensive plays, and that helped us,” Zappia said. “The second time, we went off the gap with the serve, they were able to make a couple of more offensive plays.”
In the pairs bracket championships, Zappia and Anderson defeated the Utah pair of Dani Barton and Adora Anae before falling to the USC pair of eventual champions Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes.
Tan and her partner freshman Madi Yeomans beat California’s Olivia Rodberg and Bryce Bark before losing to Stanford’s Kathryn Plummer and Jenna Gray.
In the No. 2 pairs’ matchups of the team bracket, Tan and Yeomans suffered two tough three-set defeats to USC in the same day.
While Tan said it was admittedly a tough loss in the final, she viewed it as motivation to work hard on making minor improvements in the coming week.
“We had a couple of opportunities that we could have just executed a game plan or a final point, and it’s just like a matter of one small tweak of getting a right call or getting the set just a foot higher that would make the difference in the game,” Tan said. “I hope that we’re going to go into practice this weekend and try to get 10 percent better – that will be the difference.”
On the other hand, the pairs of Anderson and sophomore Izzy Carey and freshmen Lily Justine and Savvy Simo will be looking to continue their winning streaks after they beat their respective opponents from USC twice during the day.
Justine and Simo are a relatively new pair, as they first played together April 5 against Cal Poly. Simo said that they could improve on their communication but they are getting used to each other.
Simo mentioned the warmup before the first match against USC felt unusual but ended up helping them to keep calm and play better.
“It was a weird warm up, everyone was kind of out of it, we came to a point that we said, ‘We got to figure this out, we got to pick it up right now before we start playing,’” Simo said. “It turned out we played relaxed, handled them pretty easily – the lack of stress and greater confidence was good for us.”
Simo said personally, she did feel a difference mentally going into the final because of the added pressure of a championship and beating the same team twice.
“I just had to make sure I had to keep my composure stay connected to my partner, though I got stressed during the second match,” Simo said.
She added while it was a bummer and the team was upset, the loss was necessary and will get the team more excited for nationals.
“It’s frustrating so it gives us more intention, more fight, more fire to come out and play our best at nationals,” Simo said.