Sunday, November 6, 2011

How did USC beat Washington?

The Washington Huskies were clearly overmatched this weekend in Los Angeles. But let’s step back:
UW was playing the top two teams in the conference on their home courts. The two teams are a combined 16-0 at home (not counting UCLA’s win on USC’s court.)
UCLA is ranked #1 in the nation; USC is ranked fourth (though there are good arguments that the Trojans should be #2.) The two rivals have a combined record of 41-7.
For the second straight year, Washington lost on the road to all five of their main Pac-12 competitors: UCLA, USC, Stanford, Cal & Oregon. On the other hand, Washington has lost just once this season at home.
Last season, of course, the Huskies advanced to the Elite 8, before losing to eventual national runners-up Cal. That team—with a very different lineup—had the same record as this year’s team at the same point in the season.
And so, as we always do, let’s ask: How did USC beat Washington?
When a setter receives a poor pass, the wise choice is to set the outside. Of course, the opponent knows that, too, and can adjust its defense accordingly.
When a setter gets a great pass, especially after an opponent is forced to send across a free ball, a confident offense keeps the defense guessing until the last possible second. The setter in a 6/2 offense has four potential targets when her team is in-system: three front-row players, and one in back.
All weekend, the Huskies’ passing was below its usual standards, both on serve receive and digs. But too often— even when a pass gave them two or three options—setters Evan Sanders and Jenni Nogueras chose the obvious set instead of mixing it up. In particular, the Huskies needed to get more sets to Summer Ross on the right, and to either Ross or Krista Vansant when they were in the back row.
Throughout the match, Washington Coach Jim McLaughlin had his team start in rotation 4. That gave Nogueras and Bianca Rowland more playing time, and put Vansant on the front row more often. Rowland had another good night and a huge weekend, with a combined 21 kills and just one error on 40 attacks (.500).
No matter who was setting, however, the Huskies rarely won the point when they served: just 13 times on the night, 8 of those in the third set.
Watch the best hitters in the conference take their approach: they stay behind the ball and jump very high. From that altitude and with the ball in front of them, they can and do hit down and hit hard.
The Huskies have hitters capable of doing the same, but against the Bruins and the Trojans, they rarely put it together. For much of the season, Kylin Muñoz has shown a tendency to run under the ball, reducing both the height on her jump and her options where she can launch the ball. From where we sit, it seems Muñoz needs to wait a split second more on many of her approaches instead of rushing toward the net.
Of late, freshman sensation Vansant has shown the same tendency to run under, though it comes in streaks, often toward the end of a match. Vansant gets too many sets; she has to transition so often that she displays periods of fatigue and loss of concentration. Now that Gabbi Parker has had three strong matches in a row, (12 kills for the weekend against 4 errors), the setters should look her way a little more often.
“Their outsides were good tonight and put some balls away,” McLaughlin told the Seattle Times’ Terry Wood after the match. “Ours didn't.”
The biggest surprise of the LA weekend was the sudden disconnect between Sanders and Lauren Barfield. Although Sanders’ lack of connection with Rowland is well-documented, she and Barfield have always seemed in sync. The past two matches were a glaring exception, likely because Sanders was trying too hard to set middle when the pass wasn’t there. Barfield, for her part, needed to do a better job of recognizing when passes were poor, and to expect the possibility of a set every time out. Too many attacks were easy-to-dig pushes instead of the strong kills now in her arsenal.
Kelly Holford
[Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann]
The Trojans’ three middle blockers—Lauren Williams, Alexis Olgard and Hannah Schraer—ate the Huskies’ alive. They combined for 18 kills and just 3 errors on 28 swings (.536)
Success like that, as they say, has many mothers. Washington sent over too many easy serves and free balls, allowing USC’s All-American setter Kendall Bateman to set quicks with ease. When Washington did serve tough or its hitters connected, the Trojans’ defenders had a lot of sweet digs, right to Bateman’s waiting hands.
That kind of efficiency makes a team tough to block, and for the second night in a row, Washington failed to live up to its numbers as the best blocking team in the nation. UW had just four blocks on the night, and even had a tough time getting quality deflections for its back row to handle. For the first time this season, McLaughlin started Kelly Holford in place of co-captain Jenna Orlandini at libero, although he switched back for the third set. Neither player had a bad match, considering.

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