UCLA women’s volleyball’s sweep of USC couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I think it was really cool finishing it off against ‘SC; that was such a great game for us to see that we can come back,” said senior outside hitter Reily Buechler. “It gives us confidence to go into this week with our heads held high.”
No. 15 seed UCLA (19-10, 12-8 Pac-12) will play Austin Peay (30-5, 14-2 Ohio Valley Conference) on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The other half of the bracket will see Denver (23-5, 12-2 Summit League) face Cal Poly (26-2, 16-0 Big West) in the earlier match and winners of the two matches will meet in the second round, to be played Saturday. As one of the top-16 seeds, the Bruins earned the opportunity to host the NCAA first and second rounds at Pauley Pavilion.
“It was nice; we were a little bit surprised that we were hosting,” said coach Michael Sealy. “We’re just excited that we got to practice at home and we’re not at the airport right now. … We’ve been on the road for the last two weeks, so for us to be able to be home, asleep in our own beds, and do our normal routine I think it really helps.”
UCLA is on a three-match winning streak and its last loss was a five-setter against the overall No. 3 seed Stanford.
“It was really good to finish our last four matches pretty well,” said sophomore middle blocker Madeleine Gates. “I think it makes us feel really strong for the tournament and really excited as to what we can do.”
UCLA’s next opponent, Austin Peay, out of Clarksville, Tennessee, claimed the Ohio Valley Conference’s automatic bid by virtue of winning its third OVC tournament title and will travel to California for the first time ever. It is the Governors’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010 and second all time, while it will be UCLA’s 35th appearance.
“They are champions in their division and they get to come play in Pauley,” Sealy said. “They have nothing to lose and everything to gain so they have the freedom to just come and give everything they have.”
Austin Peay has no player above 6-foot-1, whereas UCLA boasts five such players.
“They’re not going to be as big as most of the Pac-12 teams, but they’re going to be scrappy, they’re going to play good ball control,” Sealy said.
Return of the transfer
If UCLA beats Austin Peay, there is a possibility that it might face off against a former Bruin, Cal Poly outside hitter Torrey Van Winden. The sophomore was named to the All-Pac-12 Conference First Team last year for a UCLA squad that reached the round of eight. She finished third in the Bruin lineup with 2.87 kills per set and fourth with 0.65 blocks per set before transferring to Cal Poly her sophomore year with three years of eligibility remaining.
Buechler said that Van Winden is a tough competitor.
“She played well for us last year; she’s super gnarly when she wants to be on,” Buechler said. “If we can just slow her down a little bit I think we’re going to do well.”
This season, Van Winden has led the Mustangs to win the Big West Conference title with 441 kills and 54 blocks. Cal Poly has remained undefeated in conference play for the first time in program history.
“It has the potential to be a really emotional game, but I think both teams are really good and it will be really fun to match up again,” Gates said.