Playing in their first championship game in almost 20 years, the UCLA women’s volleyball team made sure not to let the opportunity pass them by. UCLA emerged victorious over Illinois in four sets to win the team’s fourth NCAA title and the school’s 108th.
All-American junior outside hitter Rachael Kidder led UCLA with 20 kills and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament following the Bruins’ victory.
Kidder got off to a fast start with six kills in the first set, but the Illinois block was prepared for her on the outside and held her to three kills in the second.
UCLA took the first set 25-23 and gave up a seven-point lead in the second as Illinois won the second set 25-23.
The two teams matched up evenly, and the first two sets reflected that. The first set alone featured 12 ties and big runs by both squads. The Bruins rattled off a 7-1 run to take the lead but gave up a 6-1 run to the Illini to even it up.
The Illini went on a 12-3 run to close out the second set, and UCLA went into the locker room on a low point.
“We were just confident that it was our game the whole time and we knew if we had the momentum and we were in control of the game, then it was going to go our way,” Kidder said.
The Bruins came out slow in the third set that was again back and forth with multiple lead changes. Down 21-19, Illinois, led by senior outside hitters Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch, scored four straight to make it 23-21.
UCLA had to survive two set points from Illinois but rallied to win the third set 26-24 and shift the all-important momentum to their side heading into the fourth set.
Freshman Zoe Nightingale had a very timely best game of the season with a personal-high 11 blocks, and junior outside hitter Tabi Love stepped up again in the third set, showcasing the team’s depth on both offense and defense. Love noted that the second set was a turning point in the game and the team made a conscious effort to finish strong.
“After we went into the locker room after set two, I think that was a really big turning point for us,” Love said.
“I think it would have been easy to get fragile because we were up by so much … But I think once we made that decision as a team, that unity and our drive really drove us to come back.”
UCLA’s tallest player, the 6-foot-5 Love often found herself going up against 6-foot-6 Illinois freshman Liz McMahon and was repeatedly able to find the empty spaces in the Illinois defense.
Kidder may have been the Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament, but senior Sara Sage was the star of the final set. Sage came off the bench in the closing minutes and provided the jumpstart the team needed to close out the match, adding the exclamation mark with an emphatic kill on match point.
Sage hit six kills on seven swings for a .857 hitting percentage. The senior took advantage of the defense’s concern for Kidder and Love and repeatedly caught them off guard.
“We figured Sara could jump in and get touches. Lauren and Sara work really well together, Lauren is really aggressive, Sara can flick it in from off the net. I thought that was the spark that probably opened up some of the pin hitters as well,” coach Mike Sealy said.
Sealy becomes the first collegiate women’s volleyball coach to win a championship as both a player and a coach. Sealy was a four-year letterwinner for UCLA and was a setter on the men’s volleyball championship team in 1993.
“I think we did everything we needed to do to qualify as champions. I told them we were champions before we arrived in the building tonight and we’re going to be champions when we leave the building tonight, whether you handle that block of wood or not,” Sealy said.