Los Angeles-With its back up against an seemingly impenetrable 0-2 wall against perennial playoff prince UCLA, and its eyes looking down the bleak tunnel of elimination from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoffs, the UCSB men’s volleyball team confidently glared back and bit the Bruins where it hurt.
After mounting a two-game lead, the Bruins mistakably took the jeers and cheers of the pretentious UCLA alumni as the song of the Fat Lady. The Gauchos would sing the last note, however.
The No. 6 Gauchos upset No. 3 UCLA in five games by a score of 28-30, 27-30, 30-28, 32-30, 15-8 before a stunned Pauley Pavilion crowd of 874 on Saturday night. In its first playoff appearance in four years, Santa Barbara saved its best match of its season against the Bruins. UCSB improved to 18-10 and 12-10 in the MPSF.
“In all my years here, I can count of one hand the amount of times we have beat them,” UCSB Head Coach Ken Preston said about defeating UCLA. “This has been the biggest match of the year for us.”
Living up to his guaranteed victory over the Bruins, senior outside hitter Andy Rivera dominated the match on offense. Rivera exploded for a match-high 30 kills and a .542 hitting percentage. Every time the Gauchos needed a big kill, UCSB ran its offense to Rivera. After losing to the Bruins twice during the regular season, Rivera adamantly believed that Saturday would not be his last match in a Gaucho uniform.
“During the game, I just tried to stay calm,” Rivera said. “I just started seeing it in everybody’s eyes and then things just started clicking.”
After losing the first two games in close battles, Santa Barbara came out struggling in the third game and found themselves down 16-12. UCSB stepped up its defensive pressure and climbed back to take a 22-21 lead over the Bruins. Junior outside hitter Keith Busam entered the game and served an ace to give the Gauchos a four-point lead they would not relinquish.
The fourth game was a seesaw battle from the start. Santa Barbara found itself down 20-23, when Busam re-entered the match. Busam rattled off three straight points to energize the Gauchos again.
After Rivera’s kill at 30-29 moved the game into match-point situation for UCSB, the Bruins responded and tied-up the game after a controversial double-touch penalty by UCLA went uncalled. The resurgence would be short-lived, however. Santa Barbara rattled off two straight points and won the game, tying the match at two games apiece.
Game five was all about Santa Barbara domination. After a 5-5 tie early in the game, UCSB went on an inspired 10-3 run to finish off the Bruins.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” freshman middle blocker Michael Kennedy said of the upset. “It was crunch time for most of the game for us and magical things happened.”
Senior opposite Ben Koski also played a huge game for Santa Barbara. After seeing limited action over the last few games with a back injury, Koski responded to the call for senior leadership.
Koski recorded 18 kills and hit .289. Junior outside hitter Jan Carlo Zegarra posted just six kills but led the Gauchos with 14 digs on the defensive end. Senior setter Britt Galang distributed 63 assists all over the court, quarterbacking a brilliant game for the Gauchos. With three senior starters, the Gauchos understand the time is now for a championship.
“The seniors put us through that match,” freshman libero Aaron Mansfield said. “They pulled it out for us in the end.”
UCSB will play No. 2 Hawaii in the Final Four on Thursday night at Pepperdine in Malibu.