MVB: Gauchos roar back to beat USC in five sets

No. 4 UCSB shook off a two-set deficit and staged one of the most thrilling comebacks of the season on Wednesday night, toppling ninth-ranked USC in five sets and improving the team’s record-mark at home to 10-1.

Game scores ended up 22-25, 23-25, 25-21, 25-23, 18-16. The Gauchos improved to 13-5, 12-5 with the rebound win, moving into sole possession of third place in the crowded Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. The Trojans, who had bested UCSB at the Galen Center in a tense five-setter earlier this season, dropped to 11-8, 10-8.

UCSB has now won a season-best four straight matches and is 8-2 in its last 10 matches.

The Gauchos struggled at the beginning of the match, allowing four USC service aces and 12 kills from outside hitter Tanner Jansen over the first two sets. UCSB began to find its groove in the third, hitting a collective .385 over the final three sets (over 100 points better than the .269 clip of the first two games) and limiting Jansen to just 10 kills the rest of the way.

“We didn’t have our best stuff today, but I really like the way we showed resolve and battled through it,” said UCSB head coach Rick McLaughlin. “To pull out a win when you’re not completely on your game against a good team like USC, it’s a very good sign.”

Offensively, the Gauchos saw five attackers reach double digits in kills for the first time in season, leading to setter Jonah Seif matching a career high with 55 assists. Senior right side hitter Evan Licht paced the team with 15 kills, finishing just ahead of senior outside hitter Matt Hanley, who had a dozen. Ryan Thompson, Austin Kingi, and Ryan Hardy all had 10 kills to round out the attack.

UCSB’s middles in particular caused problems for USC’s defense. Thompson and Hardy combined for their 20 kills on just 26 attacks, good for a .692 hitting percentage. The Gauchos’ strong passing off the serve allowed Seif to look to the middles for quick strikes often throughout the match.

After trailing throughout and ultimately dropping the first two sets, UCSB established its largest lead to that point by pulling off an 8-4 run to go ahead 17-13 in the third set. The Trojans would push back and get as close as two, but a Kingi-Thompson double-block on a Jansen attempt re-established the Gauchos’ momentum at 21-18, leading to a timeout from Trojans head coach Bill Ferguson. The two teams traded sideouts from there, putting UCSB squarely back into the match.

The Gauchos capitalized on their newfound life by claiming four of the first five points in the next game, which would turn out to be a vital advantage in a close set that saw 10 ties and a pair of lead changes.

USC looked to have the Gauchos dead to rights when a Maddison McKibbin line shot put his team up 17-13. A service error and Kingi kill put Licht up to the service line with the match in jeopardy, and the Manhattan Beach native responded by smashing the last of his three aces on the night and then causing a pair of easily killed over passes with his jump serve to put UCSB back up 18-17. Later tied at 23-all, a Hardy putdown preceded an errant Jansen spike that sent the match into a decisive fifth set.

After a few momentum swings saw the two teams knot at 14-all in the last game, Hanley gave UCSB its first opportunity at match point with a spike through the USC block. The Trojans fought off match points on two of the next three plays, before Hardy’s final kill of the night gave UCSB its third attempt at match point. After a shanked pass, Jansen and USC libero Henry Cassiday collided trying to salvage a decent set, and the off-balance Cassiday was called for a double touch to end the match.

The comeback went against two trends that had followed the Gauchos this season. It was just the second time in 2014 that UCSB won despite being outdug (44-40 in USC’s advantage) and just the third time that the winner of the first set went on to lose a match involving the Gauchos.

Besides matching his career high in assists, Seif also equaled his career-best mark with 12 digs. His dozen scoops led the Gauchos. Thompson (seven blocks) and Hardy (four blocks) helped UCSB to a 13-6 advantage at the net.

The Trojans were led by All-American setter Micah Christenson, who had a double-double (52 assists and 12 digs, both team-highs) to go along with a match-best five aces. Jansen finished the night with a match-high 22 kills but was nowhere near the factor late in the contest as he was early. Lucas Yoder was the main offensive option late in the tilt and finished with 21 kills.

The Gauchos will close out their four-match homestand on Friday night when they welcome No. 5 Pepperdine to Rob Gym. Earlier this season, UCSB upset the then-No. 3 Waves in five sets at the Firestone Fieldhouse. First serve of the rematch is set for 7:00 p.m.