Micah Ma’a sprinted past the antenna to the other side of the court to chase down a ball shanked by senior opposite Christian Hessenauer and fell just short, giving USC the point it needed to win the match.
UCLA gave USC more than a third of its points in the fifth set off unforced errors, along with missed blocks and digs that allowed the Trojans to rack up kills.
The unranked Trojans, however, had some reasons to care – and it showed. Saturday was senior night and a chance to upset crosstown rival No. 3 UCLA. The Trojans brought the energy the Bruins lacked and had nothing to lose.
UCLA men’s volleyball’s five-set loss to USC last weekend was not only the Bruins’ worst loss of the season, but also their first loss to an unranked team since the 2014 season. Prior to Saturday, the Trojans hadn’t beat a ranked team all season, with USC’s most impressive victories coming against unranked Stanford.
Pauley Pavilion will play host to the NCAA championships May 3-5, but the Bruins might not get an invite after last weekend’s loss to the Trojans.
To qualify for the NCAA tournament, they will have to either win the MPSF tournament or secure an at-large bid. UCLA is now tied for second in the MPSF with No. 4 Pepperdine, and will likely have to face both the Waves and No. 2 BYU, ranked first in the MPSF, in order to take home the conference title. Those two teams have something else in common: They’re the only teams that have swept the Bruins this season.
With two tough opponents in the way of the MPSF championship, it seems likely UCLA will have to vie for an at-large bid, and the Bruins’ chance at securing that bid was seriously hurt by losing to the Trojans.
Of the four teams ranked above UCLA in the NCAA rankings – Long Beach State, BYU, UC Irvine and Pepperdine – only two can qualify through an automatic bid by winning either the MPSF or the Big West.
With a late-season loss to an unranked team, the argument for the Bruins becomes much more difficult. Long Beach State remains undefeated and the other three teams above UCLA don’t have the same blemish on their resumes.
That’s not to say, however, that all hope is lost for the Bruins – just that their last two games of the regular season have become a lot more important.
UCLA faces Stanford, a team with a similar record to USC, on Thursday, and the game has become even more must-win than before. Two consecutive losses to unranked teams would cause irreparable damage to the Bruins’ tournament stock.
BYU will travel to face UCLA on Saturday in a game that could turn things around for the Bruins. A win would rebuild the Bruins’ confidence and give them a late-season win over a top team that would greatly support the argument they belong in the tournament.
But if the Bruins continue to play like they played at the Galen Center, they should expect their season to come to an early end.