UC Santa Barbara comes back to down UCLA in five-set thriller
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Fourth-seeded and fifth-ranked UC Santa Barbara fought back from a 14-7 deficit in a win-or-go-home fourth set to ultimately score a five-game victory against fifth-seeded UCLA in the MPSF tournament quarterfinals in front of a season-high 2,000 fans at Rob Gym on Saturday night. The win sets up a second round matchup at top-seeded BYU, whom the Gauchos previously upset in the final week of the regular season.
Game scores were 23-25, 25-20, 18-25, 25-20, 15-12. UC Santa Barbara improved to 18-8 on the season, equaling the second most single-season wins for the program in the MPSF era. UCLA ended their season with an 18-11 record.
It was the first time the Gauchos were hosting a postseason men's volleyball match since the 2007 season. UCSB's last two home postseason matches have come against UCLA with the same result. UC Santa Barbara is now 4-1 in MPSF tournament games under head coach Rick McLaughlin, who is in his sixth season.
UCSB fought back on multiple occasions Saturday against the Bruins, who held set leads of 1-0 and 2-1 after taking games one and three, but no scenario was more grim than the seven-point disadvantage the Gauchos faced midway through the fourth set.
After a UCLA double-block on an Evan Licht swing to make the score 14-7 in the Bruins' favor, the undeterred Gauchos answered with an 8-3 run – featuring a Weston Nielsen ace and two momentum-sapping blocks from All-MPSF First Team setter Jonah Seif – to close the gap to one. What appeared to be imminent defeat turned into an unexpected lead just a few points later when Matt Hanley went cross-court for one of his 16 kills on the night to make the score 18-17 UCSB. Hanley ripped three serves later in the set that resulted in easy UCSB kills to stretch the lead to 23-19 before a Gonzalo Quiroga serve went wide to clinch the set for the Gauchos. All in all, UCSB went on an 18-6 run to close the fourth.
In an already tense match, the decisive fifth set proved to be the most hotly contested, as there were six ties and three leads changes, more than any other game in the match. Neither team could break away, but when Licht stepped to the service line with the score tied at 8-all, the All-MPSF Second Teamer changed that immediately with a four-point run.
Licht's first serve of the run resulted in an ace off the arms off Bruins seven-foot outside hitter Robart Page. His next two resulted in poor passes that led to a pair of easy blocks for Jake Staahl (he was assisted by Weston Nielsen on the first and Seif on the second). The final point off the rally came on a kill by Nielsen of an over pass caused by Licht's jump serve, making the score 12-8 UCSB.
Licht's ace gave him 91 in his UCSB career, moving him into a tie for third place in program history with Bryan Berman.
Hanley, a UCLA transfer, got revenge on his old program by contributing the final two points of the contest, a kill through the block to make it match point and a match-winning double-block with Ryan Thompson of a Spencer Rowe swing.
"There were some sticky moments there for sure," McLaughlin said. "But our guys showed what they're made of by pulling that one out. We look forward to the challenge BYU presents, both our matches against them this season have been great matches."
Licht led the Gauchos offensively on the night with a team-high 17 kills, just one ahead of Hanley. Nielsen rounded out UCSB's outsides with 14 kills, while Jake Staahl (six kills) and Ryan Thompson (four) chipped in from the middle. Seif had four kills, his third consecutive match with at least that many. He also finished with 46 assists, while his two aces co-led all players alongside Nielsen.
Following a sluggish start that saw UCLA open the match on a 5-0 run en route to an opening game victory, the Gauchos rebounded by hitting .345 as a team in the second to even things up. Licht was the talisman of UCSB's attack in that frame, striking for six kills on 11 swings.
UCLA received strong contributions from Quiroga, who had a double-double with team-high totals in kills (18) and digs (13). However, the Bruins' other two outside hitters were held to hitting percentages under .200 and the back row struggled with the serve at times, racking up six reception errors to UCSB's one.
The Gauchos are scheduled to do battle with the Cougars on Thursday night.