At first glance, fans wouldn’t have known USC’s men’s volleyball team came into this rivalry match with a dreadful 2-10 record. The team fought for every point, diving across the court to a first-set victory over the rival Bruins.
However, the energy fell as UCLA won the next three sets with scores of 22-25, 14-25 and 19-25 Sunday night at Pauley Pavilion en route to a 3-1 victory over the Trojans.
“[We] treated it just like any game — watched film, looked for tendencies and tried to emulate [success] in practice — but it didn’t work,” sophomore outside hitter Brandon Browning said. “It fell apart in the end.”
As they came from behind in the first set, the Trojans served tough, tying the game at 18-18 before surpassing the Bruins on a 4-1 run. In a defining moment of the set, Browning secured the winning kill for the Trojans, collecting eight kills and nine digs on the night.
Browning and USC junior middle blocker Sam Lewis made big moves on the net and led the team with eight kills apiece, and junior libero Cole Paxson maintained steady defense with six digs.
Rebounding from their first-set loss, the Bruins kept going on runs, creating gap after gap as the Trojans struggled to catch up. UCLA’s aces and kills sparked too much momentum for USC to overtake.
Returning from a head injury to play in his fourth match of the season, UCLA senior middle blocker Daenan Gyimah earned a season-high 14 kills while hitting .600 and adding six blocks. Gyimah boosted the Bruins’ energy on the court, proving to be a dynamic and dominant hitter for the team and a controlling force up at the net.
Freshman hitter Cole Ketrzynski led the Bruins with 15 kills and nine digs; sophomore outside hitter Cole Pender added eight crucial kills and freshman setter Mads Kyed Jensen had a stellar all-around performance with five kills, six digs, five blocks and four aces.
Overall, the Bruins outhit the Trojans, putting up a .391 hitting percentage to USC’s .212 and 48 kills to USC’s 41. The Bruins also significantly outdid the Trojans in blocks, aces and digs.
When USC was down by two in the final set, UCLA’s Gyimah stunned the crowd as he launched a high-powered topspin serve at USC’s Cole Paxson’s chest. The ball redirected upward toward the screen and back down for Browning to bump set a swing off redshirt sophomore outside/opposite hitter Billy Fauntleroy; the Trojans eventually won the point.
Being a young team, the Trojans are working on finding their team identity, and it’s plays like these that show their improvement.
“We’re coming together, becoming fighters,” Browning said. “We’re not the best team yet, but so far we’re shaping up, and the season’s not over.”
The Trojans tied up the game again at points 12, 13 and 14 before the Bruins went on a pivotal offensive run.
USC finished the match on a service error, contributing to an overall 21 service errors for each team.
“[We should focus on] energy control,” sophomore setter Jameson McKibbin said. “Controlling the controllables, never regressing and always going forward.”
Although the young team began to show improvement by winning a set against a tough opponent, USC has gotten off to its slowest start since the 2016 season. The road only gets tougher for the Trojans as they travel to No. 12 Stanford and No. 2 BYU this weekend.