SEATTLE – Two top-five volleyball traded blows tonight at Alaska Airlines Arena in front of 4,274 fans, and the third-ranked Huskies (23-1, 15-1 Pac-12) were the ones standing at the end, using a huge block and a great all-around offense to knock off fourth-ranked USC (22-4, 12-3 Pac-12). Junior Krista Vansant put down 21 kills and junior Kaleigh Nelson added 14 more, and 19 blocks helped UW to the 25-15, 21-25, 25-21, 25-17 win in the crucial Pac-12 showdown.
The win was the 13th in a row for the Huskies, their best streak in conference play since the 2005 season, also the last time that UW had a 15-1 record in conference, and the last time UW won the conference. The Huskies now have a two-game lead in the loss column over USC and Stanford, with a trip to Stanford looming for Washington this coming Wednesday.
But tonight all the focus was on the high level of play on the court. The Huskies hit .292, and held USC down to .197, in large part thanks to those 19 team blocks. Sophomore Lianna Sybeldon had 10 of those, three of the solo variety. Melanie Wade added seven, and Vansant and Kylin Muñoz each had six blocks. Vansant hit .375 and Nelson hit .367, making the most of the on-point setting from Jenni Nogueras and Katy Beals, who each had 22 assists. UW leads the Pac-12 in aces, and USC is the hardest to ace, but UW still managed five aces on just five errors, while USC had two aces but 10 service errors.
“Good volleyball both ends of it,” said Head Coach Jim McLaughlin. “They put some pressure on us, we put some pressure on them. We had to make plays. Game two, we figured out in a tight game when it’s good volleyball you can’t give them anything, you have to make them earn points. And the rest of the way we did that. Just good, complete volleyball. Good energy, good emotion. They’re wiped out right now, but that’s what you have to do to beat teams like that.”
The only other season in which the Huskies swept the home and road weekends against USC and UCLA was in 2008.
“The challenges just get tougher and tougher,” McLaughlin said, “but I think we’re growing, and we’re getting tougher and tougher.”
The Huskies raced out of the gate with the first four points as Vansant and Wade had early kills and then they teamed up to stuff Ebony Nwanebu. Nelson’s first kill made it 8-5, but the Trojans cut the deficit to 8-7, but then Sybeldon dropped a tip over the block and that sent Strickland back to serve. She cranked an ace to the floor on her first swing, and then put USC in trouble and Nwanebu was stuffed by Sybeldon and Muñoz. Vansant hammered around the block for a kill on the next point and USC called timeout with UW up 12-7. Out of the break, Strickland extended her serving run by hammering a kill from the back row before she served wide to snap the run. With UW up 15-9, the Trojans came back with a 3-0 run to prompt a UW timeout. Wade and Vansant posted a key block out of the break, and then Nelson hit from the right side for 17-12 and USC called timeout right back. That sparked a great serving run for Vansant, as she put USC in trouble, the Dawgs started digging, and Nelson put away three straight points in a row down through the USC block. A Sara Shaw kill finally snapped the 5-0 UW run and made it 20-13 Dawgs. Wade served up an ace for a 22-13 lead, and then Strickland hammered one nearly straight down inside the block for 23-13. USC made a couple final late errors to end the set, 25-15 in favor of Washington. Nelson put away five kills in the set, four in a row in the big late run, and UW outhit the Trojans, .314 to .077 in the set, making just two errors.
In the second set, the Huskies had a small early lead but a 4-0 USC run forced a Husky timeout down 4-7. Vansant put one away out of the break and then Wade and Nelson teamed for a stuff of Bricio for 6-7, but USC answered back with two. Sybeldon cracked one for 10-12, but USC then came back with another three point run to force UW’s last timeout at 10-15. The Huskies converted their sideout chances but could not earn a point on serve, until a Muñoz finish off a Beals set trimmed the gap to 15-18. Vansant had a kill and then back to back rejections with Sybeldon in on both cut the USC lead all the way down to 20-21, but Strickland missed serve to end her excellent run. USC then earned a block of its own and then got a tip to fall for set point at 24-20. Sybeldon tipped back to save the first, but USC finished with a Bricio kill for 25-21. The Trojans hit .306 in the set compared to .242 for the Huskies, and Bricio was nearly unstoppable with 10 kills.
Vansant had the first three kills of the third set to get UW moving. USC evened it up at 7-7, but Muñoz tipped down a 50-50 ball and then Strickland’s serve was overpassed and Vansant hammered it down for 9-7. UW then blocked an Olgard tip try and Vansant connected again in transition for a fourth-straight point and a USC timeout at 11-7. Washington extended its run with two more out of the break, a Vansant put-away and a stuff of Nwanebu by Vansant and Sybeldon for 13-7, capping a 6-0 run. After one point USC’s way, the Huskies reeled off three more points for a 16-8 edge and USC took timeout again. Vansant had a solo rejection of Shaw in the run and Wade and Vansant blocked an Olgard soft shot as the Husky block party began. It was the Trojans, however, with a couple blocks to cut the lead in half to 18-14 and the Huskies called time. USC missed serve out of the break, then they made a net violation for a key point for 20-15. Sybeldon and Muñoz then stuffed Hannah Schraer in the middle, but just when UW looked like it was pulling away, USC scrambled back with a 4-0 run to force UW’s last timeout at 21-19. UW didn’t get the kill it wanted but the block rose up, Sybeldon and Muñoz stuffing Nwanebu for 22-19. After a USC sideout, the Trojans dug Vansant but the dig went back over and Vansant leapt up and psiked it back down. Muñoz then got UW to set point with a solo roof of Shaw, and on the second set point, Muñoz went crosscourt from the right and it fell for the kill and the set, 25-21. Vansant had a huge 10 kills in the frame, hitting .444, and the Dawgs crushed down 10 blocks, four from Sybeldon.
The Husky block got rolling again early in set four, staking the Huskies to eight of the first 10 points and forcing a USC timeout at 8-2. Vansant had an early ace, and Wade added another. Sybeldon and Muñoz blocked Bricio and then Sybeldon spiked down a tip attempt for another block into the timeout. Sybeldon hammered another for 9-2 before the Trojans broke the run with a couple, but UW answered right back with a Muñoz kill on a Trojans overpass for 11-4 and USC used its final timeout early. Vansant painted the lines twice for maintain the lead at 14-6, but USC rallied with three straight for a Husky timeout at 14-9. Vansant put one away crosscourt out of the break to stem the tide. With USC threatening again, it was the 5-8 Strickland that posted two straight rejections of Elise Ruddins, assisted by Wade and Sybeldon, to get back to a 17-11 edge. Nelson hammered for 18-12, then USC made two miscues for 20-15 Dawgs. Beals found Vansant for a kill, and then Nogueras set Nelson for another finish and a 22-17 lead. Vansant then went back to serve and put the match away, first going short for an ace, and then on the final two points, Nogueras went right to Nelson in transition and the junior put both away to end it, 25-17. Washington hit .324 in the final frame and held USC to .205. Vansant killed four of nine swings without an error, adding two aces, and Nelson added five kills with one error on 11 swings.
Washington will rest up this weekend after finishing its fourth win in the past seven days. The Huskies will then face yet another big challenge, traveling to No. 6 Stanford on Wednesday.