Saturday, November 5, 2011

How did UCLA beat Washington?

If only Bianca Rowland could play the Bruins every week.
Washington’s senior middle blocker was once again unstoppable against top-ranked UCLA. Friday night, she had 14 kills on 21 attempts and no hitting errors (.667) When the Bruins were swept by the Huskies in September, Rowland put away 12 kills on 17 attacks with just one error. (.647) That’s a combined .658 … a number UCLA is unlikely to see from any other player they face this season.
It’s interesting to note that in Rowland’s Seattle match, her setter was Evan Sanders. Last night, it was Jenni Nogueras, as the Huskies continued their mid-season switch to a 6/2. In September, Kylin Muñoz and Lauren Barfield had a combined 19 kills, with 4 errors on 44 attempts. (.341) Last night, the collective line for those two was 6-5-27 (.037). That huge gap made all the difference in sets one and three, when the Huskies couldn’t convert a combined three set points, losing both sets 26-28.
It should be said that, when the Bruins went on a couple of long runs, it was outside hitter Gabbi Parker who was able to put kills to the floor to stop the streaks. She’s gaining confidence each week with her newly-earned role in the 6/2.
So how did UCLA beat Washington?
It’s a Jim McLaughlin mantra: the team with the better serve/serve receive numbers almost always wins the match.
Time and again—and particularly late in the first and third sets—UCLA’s back line sent passes within reasonable reach of their setter, Lauren Van Orden. The Huskies did not do the same, forcing Sanders and Nogueras to telegraph their sets to the outside, allowing UCLA’s defense to adjust.
The Huskies have the best serving stats in the Pac-12, and are among the best in the nation. They committed just 7 service errors Friday, but two of them came at the worst possible moment, late in sets 1 and 3.
Good blocking is usually a function of good serving. When the opposing setter can’t handle a pass, her options are limited, and blockers can key on just one or two hitters.
In large part, that explains why Washington—statistically the nation’s top-blocking team—had just four team blocks on the night, its worst performance of the season.
“Our serving wasn’t good, so our blocking is tougher, McLaughlin told the Seattle Times’ Terry Wood after the match. “Then when they were going outside we were hurrying and reaching and just opening up space instead of getting over the net. That was an issue that just put more pressure on us. In a tough match like this, those things are exposed. It was killing us.” [see more of McLaughlin’s post-match interview with Terry Wood here.]
The Huskies' blocks weren't there against the Bruins
[Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann]
UCLA didn’t get many termination blocks themselves, but Washington’s hitters—and especially Barfield—kept bouncing attacks off the blocker’s hands, sending ricochets high enough for the Bruins’ back line to pass. By contrast, UCLA’s middle hitters attacked at smarter angles, bouncing the ball to places where the Huskies’ defenders couldn’t reach them.
Washington has lost just once at home this season (in its opening Pac-12 match, to USC.) Time and again at Hec Ed, they’ve allowed opponents to reach 20 points first, only to display enough cool and focus to come back for wins.
It’s a different story on the road. At CalStanfordOregon and UCLA, the Huskies either couldn’t close a late gap, or—repeatedly last night—couldn’t close the deal with set point in hand. While the final score read 0-3, the tiniest play or two could have made it 2-1 in the Huskies’ favor after three sets.
Most elite teams have a go-to outside hitter when the set or match is on the line—Rachel Kidder at UCLA, Alex Jupiter at USC and Tarah Murrey at Cal, to name just a few. In future seasons, the Huskies will have two such players: current freshmen Summer Ross and Krista Vansant. At the moment, Bianca Rowland is that player for the Huskies. But as a middle blocker, she’s on the sidelines for half the rotations, and can only get sets on good passes. Until Ross and Vansant have the confidence to simply take over a match, it’s up to Parker and Muñoz to step up.

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