Head coach Brad Keller looks up at the Galen Center scoreboard. He cannot believe what is happening. His injury-riddled Trojans are five points away from a sweep against the No. 8 team in the nation. A win against Stanford would guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament and might even put USC back in the Top 25 AP Rankings.
Three sets later, Keller was in disbelief again. His team had just blown a 2-0 lead to the Cardinal at Galen Center, the second time Stanford had defeated the Trojans this season.
“I always say that losses are painful gifts,” Keller said. “If you phrase it right, you can really learn a lot about what a team is doing. But I mean, Trojans, Bruins, Cardinal; you don’t want to lose to each other in any form.”
With senior outside hitter Skylar Fields out with a day-to-day leg injury, the Trojans relied heavily on freshman outside hitter Jordan Wilson. The Arizona native recorded a team-leading 21 kills in the losing effort. Sophomore setter Mia Tuaniga recorded 48 assists.
“[My teammates] really helped me get to 21,” Wilson said. “Being able to hear my teammates on the court is great, and I talk with Mia a lot. She always talks to me on how to adjust and what shots are open.”
Stanford senior opposite Kendall Kipp torched the Trojans for 24 kills to go along with a .413 hitting percentage.
“Kendall Kipp is a National Team-caliber type of player, and so is Skylar Fields,” Keller said. “They play at a physically higher level than anyone else, they have a ton of range, they have great hand contact. They can just do things that a lot of other players can’t do.”
The opening set was deadlocked until graduate middle blocker Kalyah Williams lept high in the air and delivered a slam from the right side to put the Trojans up 24-22.
Senior opposite hitter Emilia Weske delivered the killing blow, rifling a ball from Tuaniga into the Stanford defense.
A 4-1 run in the second set, featuring three of Weske’s 15 kills decisively put the Trojans ahead 19-12, leading to a 25-21 victory.
The Trojans still looked unstoppable in the third set. The Cardinal could not handle a soft spike from sophomore middle blocker Katelyn Smith, putting the Trojans up 10-6.
The Cardinal countered with a 4-0 run to tie the set, capped off by a blast from redshirt junior outside hitter Caitie Baird.
The two teams went back and forth in a set that featured 14 of the game’s 31 ties and six of the game’s lead changes. Stanford emerged victorious 25-22, shifting the momentum in the Cardinal’s favor.
Fans wearing cardinal and gold roared when Tuaniga slammed a serve that bounced off the hands of Stanford freshman outside hitter Elia Rubin and put the Trojans up 22-20 in the fourth set.
The Cardinal scrambled for two more points to tie the game.
Kipp followed up the effort by smacking the ball past the diving Wilson. She then delivered two service aces to give the Cardinal their second set victory.
By the fifth set, the Trojans were exhausted and under immense pressure to defeat a top-ten team. Kipp burst the floodgates open by racking up four more kills and a block in a 7-1 Cardinal run.
The Trojans never recovered, losing the final set 15-9.
The 3-2 defeat against the Cardinal marks the second time that USC held a 2-0 lead this season before dropping the next three sets. The first occasion was against Hawaii September 10.
USC looks to right the ship on Saturday with a match against Cal in Galen Center. The Golden Bears are 7-17 overall and 0-14 in the Pac-12.
“We played a really great game against Stanford, and we’re facing another great opponent in Cal,” Wilson said. “So, we’ve just got to be on our A-game.”