'Spike Night' women's volleyball preview: No. 9 UCLA at No. 21 USC

UCLA Athletics / John McGillen

Who: USC vs. UCLA 

When: Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m. PT/8 p.m. MT on Pac-12 Network, with Anne Marie Anderson and Tammy Blackburn on the call.

The Trojans welcome crosstown rival UCLA to Galen to lift the lid on the conference season in a battle of ranked squads to kick off the 2016 slate of "Spike Night" matches on Pac-12 Network.

The Story so Far: No. 21 USC (8-3, 0-0 Pac-12)

If you were told that the Trojans would be 8-3 heading into conference play before the season started, you’d probably think something was amiss in Troy. If you were told this after the first weekend of the regular season, you’d probably think that the ship was righted.

Mick Haley’s group stumbled out of the gates to an 0-3 start in the first weekend of action as the Trojans searched for an answer at the setter position, marking the first time since 1990 that USC lost its first three matches of the season. What was especially troubling was that the Trojans weren’t exactly playing a murderers’ row of opponents – the capper to the 0-3 start was a three-set sweep at the hands of UC Irvine, a team it hadn’t lost to the first 12 times the sides matched wits (in fact, the losses to Marquette, Santa Clara and UC Irvine were all the first time USC had lost to any of those teams).

However, it didn’t take the defending Pac-12 co-champs long to work the kinks out, and the Trojans are on an eight-match winning streak entering conference play. The Trojans have settled on Alice Pizzasegola and Reni Meyer-Whalley (a Washington transfer) as the two setters, while freshman Khalia Lanier has been a dominant force from an attacking perspective. Fresh off three-set triumphs over Oklahoma and Maryland, USC has claimed 16 of the last 17 sets it has played.

The Story so Far: No. 9 UCLA (9-1, 0-0 Pac-12)

There were no such alarms ringing in Westwood at the start of 2016 for the Bruins, as UCLA got out to its best start in 10 years by winning its first seven matches of the season. They didn’t exactly have the most challenging of schedules, but the Bruins did manage wins over ranked teams in No. 21 LMU and at No. 15 Hawai’I and only lost to top-15 San Diego on the road. They have shown plenty of resiliency as well, as the Bruins are 4-0 so far this season in matches in which they have dropped the first set.

A lot has been working well for the Bruins thus far, but look no further than their defense to get a statistical glimpse into why UCLA is 9-1 this season – the Bruins rank second in the nation in digs per set (18.86, absolutely ridiculous), eighth in opponent hitting percentage (.120; again, just unbelievably good) and 24th in blocks per set (2.75; not too shabby). If you dig well and you block well, it follows that opponents gotta be hitting a pretty low percentage.

UCLA has played plenty of matches in Southern California so far, but has yet to step foot on Pauley Pavilion when the lights are on – the Friday, Sept. 23, contest against Washington State will be the Bruins’ first home contest of the season.

Three Players to Watch  USC

  1. #16 Khalia Lanier (6’2" freshman, outside hitter) The daughter of eight-time NBA All-Star and Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, Khalia came to Troy as the most decorated high school player in the class of 2016 as the No. 1 overall recruit and Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year. So far, she has done nothing but live up to the hype and help replace the void left behind by Samantha Bricio, averaging a team-best 3.87 kills per set. She has also done a nice job behind the service line in replacing the Pac-12’s all-time ace leader, as Lanier leads the team with 13 aces.
  2. #11 Elise Ruddins (6’3" senior, middle blocker)  Middle blockers usually have pretty high hitting percentages, but most middle blockers aren’t hitting a ridiculous .480 off 3.2 attacks per set like Ruddins. That hitting percentage of hers leads the Pac-12 by a significant margin (Stanford’s Inky Ajanaku is second at .432 entering this week), while she leads the team with 40 blocks.
  3. #4 Victoria Garrick (5’10" sophomore, libero)  Regular starting libero Taylor Whittingham is out with a leg injury, so it will be up to Garrick to keep attacks off the floor in the back row. She has some big shoes to fill, as Whittingham's 4.73 digs per set rank second in the Pac-12 (the Trojans are hopeful Whittingham will be able to return to action next week, according to USC sports information).

Three Players to Watch  UCLA

  1. #11 Taylor Formico (5’7" senior, libero)  Good luck finding open floor on the back line when No. 11 is on the court, as Formico leads the team and is third in the Pac-12 at 4.64 digs per set (one huge reason why UCLA is second in the nation as a team in that category). Currently ninth on the school’s all-time digs list, she should hit the 1,200 mark in her career by the second or third set (she’s at 1,193 right now). Keep in mind that she has almost amassed 1,200 in just three years, as she played her freshman season at UC Santa Barbara (she somehow mustered a whopping 792 digs her freshman year at UCSB).
  2. #8 Claire Felix (6’6" senior, middle blocker)  It’s always a luxury to have someone 6’6" at the net in the women’s game, especially when that someone can execute as well as Felix. The Colorado native is ninth in the conference in hitting percentage (.394) and is second on the team at nearly one block per set. She and fellow senior Jennie Frager – a Pac-12 Player of the Week honoree already this season – make for quite the blocking tandem up front for head coach Michael Sealy.
  3. #3 Reily Buechler (6’1" junior, outside hitter)  Daughter of Jud Buechler, a 12-year NBA veteran and three-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls, Reily leads the Bruins with 3.42 kills per set and is also very solid defensively, adding 2.92 digs per set to her stat line.

Three Notes to Know

1. Re-setting the Pac-12 field  If you’re using the start of conference play to begin your consumption of Pac-12 women’s volleyball, here’s what you need to know. No. 9 UCLA and No. 21 USC are two of six ranked teams from the Conference of Champions – Washington is No. 4, Stanford is No. 11, Colorado is No. 16 and Oregon is No. 24, while Utah and Washington State are also receiving votes. At 10-0, Washington is one of five undefeated teams remaining in the nation.

2. Congrats, Mick  With a 3-0 sweep of Maryland on Friday, Mick Haley got his 400th win at the helm of the USC women’s volleyball program (coincidentally enough, less than 24 hours later, Jovan Vavic got his 500th victory as USC men’s water polo head coach). He is the program’s winningest coach.

3. A good start has been a good omen for UCLA  The last two times UCLA won at least their first six matches of the season (2006 and 2011), the Bruins went to the Final Four, winning it all in 2011. A 7-0 start to 2016 sure is looking like a good thing.

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