Friday, December 16, 2011

Final Four: Lessons from the semifinals

SAN ANTONIO—No conference has had as much volleyball success as the Pac-12. But the last time a Pac-12 team won the national title was 2005 … right here in San Antonio … when Washington rolled over favored Nebraska. Since then, Washington, Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA have all reached the Final Four, but Nebraska won in 2006, and Penn State gave the Big Ten bragging rights the last four years in a row.
USC's Kendall Bateman signals while Illinois' Michelle Bartsch looks through the net
[Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann]
Illinois would like to repeat that feat, but they’ll have to get by the Bruins. Thursday night, UCLA thoroughly outplayed Florida State, a team which might have a hard time finishing higher than seventh in the Pac-12 (note to the NCAA Selection Committee: here’s further proof that the 16 teams you seeded included a lot of teams that you overrated—including Florida State.) If Washington hadn’t stumbled at Minnesota, it would not seem much of a stretch to see them beating both Iowa State and Florida State and making it a three-Pac-12 final.
UCLA’s strength was its speed. Outside hitter Rachael Kidder has the quickest arm of any player among the four teams in San Antonio; she often hits around the block instead of trying to tool blockers. Even when sets were poor—particularly when they were too far outside, Kidder found ways to direct sharp-angled kills rather than toss across free balls. On the right side, Kelly Reeves hit line with confidence throughout the first set, forcing FSU’s middle blockers to cover more ground than they could handle. Tabi Love is simply a pounder—she does best when setter Lauren Van Orden receives a perfect pass, and everyone in the building knows Love is simply going to cock her arm and smash. Unlike the other Bruins, Love is not terribly agile, and UCLA can sometimes get stuck in a bad rotation if Love has to hit out of transition, rather than getting time to retreat to her full approach.
Kidder’s quickness allows UCLA to launch faster, lower sets. Illinois, on the other hand, sends up soaring sets, and allows its powerful senior outside hitters Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch to swing away. The best way to slow that strategy is to serve tough and keep the Illini on their heels. USC kept it close throughout the match, largely on the strength of libero Natalie Hagglund’s defense and setter Kendall Bateman’s distribution. But it took a long time for All-American outside hitter Alex Jupiter to get into a groove; in the end, her poor passing, erratic serving and spotty defense gave Illinois too many free ball opportunities. Like any great team, the Illini never stopped hitting as hard as they could for as long as they could, which usually spells victory in a clash between two top teams.
Illinois is impressive. But given that their two most dominant players—Ward and Bartsch—are both seniors, those of us who follow the Pac-12 have to wonder: where was this team the past couple of years? With hitters that strong and confident, how did they manage to avoid the Final Four so long?
Saturday’s championship match will likely come down to that most basic of skills: serving and serve-receive. Whichever setter gets the most in-system opportunities will allow her team to prevail.

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