USC women’s volleyball wins third straight

The team bolstered its case to make the NCAA Tournament in a win over Arizona State.

Graduate middle blocker Sabrina Smith and senior outside hitter Brooklyn Schirmer go up for a block while wearing arm sleeves and white uniforms.

USC women’s volleyball defeated the Arizona State Sun Devils in four sets on Sunday. The win improved the Trojans’ conference record to 9-9 and their overall record to 13-14 on the season. It also completed a 2-0 weekend for USC, which took down Arizona 3-0 on Friday. The Trojans have now won three straight.

Neither team was able to gain much momentum in the early going of the first set as they traded point for point and spent a few minutes waiting for a tipped-ball replay review that ultimately went USC’s way. Arizona State managed to build a significant lead mid-set, however, and earned a seven point lead of 18-11 over the Trojans.

USC rallied back to cut the deficit to just two points at 21-19 behind kills from graduates middle blocker Sabrina Smith and outside hitter Brooke Botkin and excellent defense at the net from junior opposite hitter Emilia Weske. The rally was cut off by a two-point Sun Devil run that prompted a timeout from USC head coach Brad Keller at 23-19. Out of the timeout, the Trojans were able to score another two points before ultimately losing the first set, 25-21.

The second set was much more of a back-and-forth affair that featured 12 ties — though surprisingly just three lead changes — as neither team was able to go up by more than a few points.

Botkin impressed in the early stretch with two kills and an ace — the only ace of the set for either squad — en route to a five-kill set for the outside hitter. Smith led the Trojans with eight kills in the second frame, however, as USC edged out the Sun Devils 25-21 to make it a best-of-three contest.

The third set marked a clear shift in USC’s performance.

After falling behind 4-2, USC jumped out to a 10-5 lead, prompting a Sun Devil timeout. But the Trojans managed to maintain their momentum out of the break by taking the next three points and an eight-point lead. Despite a run from ASU to pull within two points at 18-16, USC shut the door on the Sun Devils with a surge of its own and took the set convincingly, 25-19.

Despite a competitive beginning to the fourth set, USC found its edge once again. The teams traded leads until the Trojans found themselves up 15-12, forcing a Sun Devil timeout. The Trojans kept their foot on the accelerator and won the next three points, prompting yet another Arizona State timeout at 18-12. The breaks wouldn’t be enough for the Sun Devils to regroup and challenge for the set as the Trojans closed them out, 25-16.

It was an impressive win for the Trojans, who markedly improved from set to set. Keller identified numerous areas that explained this trend.

“[We had a] sense of urgency and [were] prepared a little bit faster before the point of contact of each touch,” Keller said. He added that his team did a good job of “just being ready for the next thing, or the next cast of characters, or the next whatever is coming our way… instead of being reactionary toward it.”

While the win was a team effort, certain players’ performances stood out to the coach.

“Sabrina Smith was lights out today,” he said. “[Graduate middle blocker] Candice Denny got going late … Brooke Botkin was really, really good down the stretch … and then everyone else contributed in really important times.”

Smith, Denny, and Botkin had 12, 14 and 17 kills, respectively, and Smith led all players in the match with a .647 hitting percentage. Freshman setter Mia Tuaniga also impressed with an astounding 60 assists.

The match was a crucial win for the Trojans.

Had they lost, they would have had to win out in their three remaining regular season matches to earn a .500 record for the season. That would be a tall task as the team looks ahead to this week’s matches against Brown, Stanford and UCLA — the best team in the Pac-12 and the 13th ranked team in the nation.

With Sunday’s win, however, the Trojans can afford to drop one of those contests and still break even for the season. That said, Keller isn’t looking past what’s right in front of his team.

“It’s all about the very next thing,” he said after the win. “We play UCLA, Stanford and Brown but the only thing that matters is resting today and taking care of ourselves so we can get ready for Brown.”

The Trojans host the visiting Brown Bears at Galen Center on Monday at noon.