It took some time to find their stride, but the Bruins cleaned things up after the first set to take down the Harvard Crimson in four sets during the first round of the NCAA championships.
No. 3 seed UCLA (25-7, 9-3 MPSF) hosted No. 6 seed Harvard (13-14, 10-4 EIVA) Tuesday night in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division I men’s volleyball tournament. This season marked the Crimson’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament throughout program history.
Crimson All-EIVA First Team hitter Brad Gretsch sat out against the Bruins due to an injury during a pre-match practice. Gretsch earned recognition earlier this season as the most outstanding player of the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association tournament.
“We lost a key player this morning in practice and we were down for a little bit,” said Harvard coach Brian Baise. “To come out and compete against a team like UCLA in this environment showed a lot.”
The Bruins started off set one slowly, as the Crimson took a four-point lead at 16-12 and continued to hold onto their lead for the majority of the set.
UCLA managed to close the gap and tie things up with a kill from senior outside hitter Jake Arnitz. The honorable mention all-American logged the next kill to push the Bruins to 20 first, but Harvard fought back to take the first set 25-23.
“I was really impressed with Harvard’s passing ability,” said coach John Speraw. “We were more physical, we were bigger. But I felt like at the end of the day, in volleyball the most important thing is serving and passing. … They were forcing us to really play really good fundamental volleyball.”
Both teams struggled to gain a lead in the second set, but UCLA’s offense picked up speed toward the end of the set to claim set two 25-21.
Senior opposite Christian Hessenauer was a major option for junior setter Micah Ma’a. The honorable mention all-American finished the night with 22 kills to pace UCLA’s offense and help limit the Crimson’s hitting to .105 in the second set.
The Bruins started set three off 5-0 and only grew their lead from there.
“Being down 5-0 especially against a team that good can be a little tough to fight back from,” said Harvard middle blocker Riley Moore. “We tried our best to get the momentum back, but that whole set we just looked a little defeated.”
UCLA’s middles were one reason for the Crimson’s struggle. Sophomore middle hitter and First-Team All-American Daenan Gyimah logged a total of 11 kills while redshirt senior middle blocker Oliver Martin hit 1.000 with nine kills on the night. The Bruins claimed a third set 25-11, thanks to Martin and Gyimah’s dominance at the net.
“Both those guys have been attacking well for us all year,” Ma’a said. “(Martin)’s an amazing attacker as well, he just doesn’t get the opportunities (Gyimah) does – so I’m glad we could get him some balls.”
The fourth set was a tighter race once again, as the Crimson cleaned up its offense to improve to a hitting percentage of .258. UCLA ultimately denied the guest team a chance at a fifth set, however, with a final kill from Martin to wrap up set four 25-21.
“They made us work for every single point and I think we’re going to learn a lot from it,” Speraw said. “These NCAA tournaments are important because they’re not always comfortable.”
UCLA will next play second-seeded BYU (22-6, 10-2 MPSF) in the semifinal round Thursday night.
“We’re excited to be playing in the top four again and obviously being home is going to be a great experience for us,” Speraw said. “I don’t think it was our best volleyball of the year, but I’m hoping our best volleyball is still ahead of us.”