Dec. 11, 2009

Notebook: Heavy Hitters Collide On Saturday

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- California senior hitters Mindi Wiley and Hana Cutura say they`re perfectionists. The same with Golden Bears coach Rich Feller.
So after merely edging Baylor 26-24 and 25-20 in the first two sets of their NCAA Division I Regional volleyball match Friday, Wiley and Cutura combined for 11 kills in a 25-17 third-set win over Baylor that sent the Golden Bears to a regional final for the third consecutive year.
Cal (21-10) will play top-ranked Penn State in the Regional Final at 4 p.m. ET Saturday (ESPNU). The winner of that match earns a berth in the Final Four next weekend at Tampa, Fla.
Baylor, playing in the NCAA Regionals for the first time in school history, ended its season with a 24-10 record.
Cutura, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, fought off Baylor's double coverage on the net to nail a game-high 18 kills, nearly double that of Baylor's Torri Campbell. Wiley had nine kills and was in on four blocks.
"I say more about these two guys," Feller said. "They've been pushing themselves, pushing their teammates. They are two of my best captains. I couldn`t be happier for them."
But it wasn't until the intermission between the second and third sets that the Golden Bears were able to settle themselves in the locker room. They had won the first two sets, but hadn't done it in a fashion convincing enough to please themselves. "Frazzled" is how Wiley put it.
"This team is made up of a bunch of perfectionists," Feller said.
"When we got to halftime," Wiley said, "we were all able to take a breath and get comfortable. Luckily, we were up 2-0 and were able to step back and start playing our game."
Even before that intermission breath, Cutura, a 6-foot-4 outside hitter from Croatia, was a force. She led all players in kills all three sets, and none of Baylor's defenses were effective against her. When the Bears sent two defenders to the net, Cutura hit a soft shot around them. When the Bears guarded the middle of the court against a softer shot, Cutura slammed the ball past one defender.
"She made some smart shots," Baylor coach Jim Barnes said. "She hit the angles very well. ... We needed more blocks and more digs. They did a great job hitting around our blocks."
Even so, Cal struggled to take the first set. The Golden Bears went ahead by six points, 18-12, a stretch during which Cutura scored three of four Cal points on kills. But Baylor rallied to tie the match at 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24 before two consecutive Cal points settled the opening set. The deciding point came after a blistering Cutura serve, when a volley by Baylor's Ashlie Christenson went long. For Baylor, that was a critical point.
"When you come back against the number nine team in the nation, it's an awesome feeling," said Baylor setter Taylor Barnes, who had 34 assists. "After we lost, we just had to refocus."
That became increasing difficult against a Cal team which played stronger as the match went on. After winning the second set 25-20, the Golden Bears rolled in the final set, building leads of as high as 10 points. Wiley had four of her nine kills in that set and also helped with three blocks. Cutura had seven kills.
"As the match went on, this team learned, and got better and better," Feller said.
"Cal did come out real aggressive," Taylor Barnes said.
Baylor, which had knocked off UCLA to advance to the Regional, just couldn't match Cal's speed and athleticism at the net. Down two sets, Jim Barnes had one message for his team: "Let's see if our game is good enough."
After falling behind 1-0 in the final set, Cal quickly got out to a 10-4 lead and rolled from there.
After dropping the first set, Cal built a lead of seven points in the second set three times, including at 15-8 following a 6-1 run and then again at 18-11 following a kill by Wiley and 20-13. Baylor cut the lead to three, 21-18, but was unable to get closer than that.