Brenden Yu | Off the Block special contributor
The historical success of the two teams was lopsided entering the opening-round match — UCLA with 19 NCAA champions and Harvard making its NCAA Tournament debut.
While the night did end with UCLA advancing to the VolleyFour, the match itself was more competitive than expected, as the Crimson forced the Bruins to bounce-back from an opening-game loss to take the match 23-25, 25-21, 25-11, 25-11 Tuesday night in the Pauley Pavilion.
Moreover, the Crimson were without the services of All-EIVA outside hitter Brad Gretsch, who suffered an injury in practice earlier that morning.
“I thought our guys did a great job tonight, battling and competing. I couldn’t be more impressed of how they fought—especially [because] we lost a key player this morning in practice and we were down for a little bit,” Harvard coach Brian Baise said. “But to come out and fight like that, compete against a team like UCLA in this kind of environment showed a lot. It really represents what they’ve done for the last eight weeks of this season. And obviously credit to UCLA. They played a great match, especially after that first set and made it tough for us to score. That was ultimately the difference.”
UCLA coach John Speraw noted that while the team did not play as well as it could have, its best was hopefully still yet to come.
“We’re excited to be playing in the Final Four again. Obviously, to be at home is going to be a great experience for us,” Speraw said. “Tonight we had great performances, particularly from [Christian] Hessenauer. The best part about it is that he had a rough kind of middle of the match and came back and played great for us, had some huge kills. I was really pleased with the win, and we’re really looking forward to Thursday night.”
The Bruins were led by Christian Hessenauer, who finished with a match-high 22 kills while adding 10 digs and six blocks. Middle blocker Oliver Martin was flawless with nine kills on nine attempts and added five blocks. Daenan Gyimah and Jake Arnitz each added 11 kills to the Bruins win.
Sophomore setter Matthew Ctvrtlik, along with helping run Harvard’s 6-2 offense, paced the Crimson with eight kills on a .300 hitting percentage, while libero Chase Howard tallied a match-high 15 digs.
After a strong opening set where they hit for .348, the Crimson were held to a combined hitting percentage of .011 in the next two games before bouncing back with a .258 clip in the fourth set.
“I think, throughout the whole match, we had an amazing serve-receive game,” Harvard senior middle attacker Riley Moore said. “I thought we played really well,especially how well UCLA serves. I think we broke down a little bit at the beginning, and then being down 5-0 (in the third) especially against a team that good can be a little tough to fight back. We tried our best to try and get the momentum back. That whole set, we just kind of looked a little defeated, a little down. But I was proud of how we came back in the fourth set, especially after a really tough third where we couldn’t really figure out how to get our offense going.”
The Bruins on the other hand, never hit below .323 in a game and finished with a match-high .457 hitting percentage in the final stanza.
While a win against Harvard was expected, Speraw noted that the Crimson’s playstyle could serve as a useful reference point against No. 2 BYU in the VolleyFour on Thursday. The Cougars have a 2-1 series advantage against the Bruins this season.
“I was really impressed with Harvard’s passing ability. We were more physical. We were bigger, but I felt like at the end of the day, in volleyball, the most important thing is serving and passing,” Speraw said. “They were getting kills in lots of different ways. They were playing pretty good volleyball, and so even though you look out there and you’re thinking that ‘We’re jumping higher, we’re taller,’ they were a very
fundamental team in ball control. So, it was a difficult team to defend. I can see why they got out of the East.
“They made us work for every single point. I think that we’ll learn a lot from it. These NCAA Tournaments are important because they aren’t always comfortable.Sometimes, you don’t play great and you can learn a lot from that experience. I think that we’ll go back and learn a lot and be better on Thursday.”