The junior from Tacoma had 27 kills as No. 7 Washington beat No. 8 UCLA 3-1 for second consecutive conference crown. The Huskies can win the Pac-12 outright Saturday in Pullman.
Washington volleyball coach Keegan Cook is giving thanks for Courtney Schwan — and the rest of a roster that has delivered back-to-back Pac-12 championships for the second-year coach.
The seventh-ranked Huskies, led by Schwan’s career-high 27 kills, locked up at least a share of the Pac-12 title with a drama-packed 3-1 win over eighth-ranked UCLA Wednesday night, 25-11, 22-25, 25-22, 25-15 in front of 3,474 at Alaska Airlines Arena.
“It takes a lot of people to accomplish anything of significance,” Cook said. “On days like this, it’s easy to feel grateful for all those people. I just really, really appreciate that.”
He had lots to appreciate Wednesday. In a showdown of first-place teams, the Huskies (25-4, 15-4 Pac-12) benefitted from contributors from up and down the lineup: Tia Scambray with 13 kills and 10 digs; Crissy Jones with 11 kills and a team-high 19 digs; freshman middles Avie Niece (six kills on nine swings and seven block assists) and Kara Bajema (four kills and three aces) performing like veterans.
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But it was Schwan, mixing speeds on her attacks, who kept a strong UCLA squad (23-6, 14-5) off-balance, endlessly guessing where the junior would direct her next shot.
Schwan, from Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, briefly dropped to the floor when she saw the game’s stat sheet. With just five errors on 50 swings, Schwan hit .440 for the night.
“I had no idea,” a wide-eyed Schwan said. “I was just playing in the moment of the game. I took some bad swings, and you often remember those more than the good ones.”
The match was a mix of good and bad for the Huskies. UW road-graded the Bruins in the first set, roaring to a 12-3 lead and never leading by less than eight the rest of the set. Schwan had seven of Washington’s 16 kills as the Huskies hit a blistering .600. The 11 points were the fewest put up against UW in a set this season.
“Like it rarely does, it kind of went according to plan,” Cook said. “It doesn’t usually go like that.”
UW led 12-4 in the second set and seemed on the cusp of a blowout. But the Bruins finally found gaps in Washington’s front line to draw within one. The Huskies still led 22-16 but surrendered nine straight points to lose the set and leave the court for intermission wondering what happened.
“I think we let up a little bit, and we can’t do that in the middle of a match,” Schwan said.
What got them back on course?
“We came in, had a good chat, and knew we could stick with this team,” she said. “The problem was us. We were hitting a lot of balls out of bounds, and that’s not us.”
A 7-0 UCLA run put Washington in an 8-3 hole early in the crucial third set. But seven kills from Schwan and five from Scambray narrowed the gap and, down 22-21, the Huskies scored the final four points in a set that included 14 ties and seven lead changes.
The teams were tied 13-13 in the fourth when, with Bajema serving, UW scored seven straight points, then finished it off with a 5-2 run that Scambray punctuated with a floor-shaking kill.
“I kind of challenged them at the start of the third set that wasn’t going that well,” Cook said. “Like they have all year, they responded to that. I thought we started hitting balls at hands with aggression. I saw some swings that were going out of bounds and some off-speed shots that I wasn’t too fond of. Then they turned it around and started swinging hard at the block and things happened.”
Junior setter Bailey Tanner had 51 assists and three kills.
“Our hitters were not avoiding the block,” she said. “they were hitting high and hard and deep. They were awesome.”
UW hit .310 against UCLA. The Bruins began the night with an opponents’ hitting average of just .164, second-best in the Pac-12.
“No team hits .300 against UCLA without a great setter,” Cook said in praise of Tanner.
UCLA entered the matched ranked sixth nationally in digs, but the Huskies recorded a 64-50 edge in digs.
“Our handwork at the net, the way we moved, set us up to have a great defensive night,” Cook said. “I thought Shayne (McPherson, UW’s freshman libero) was steady (13 digs). You’ve got to pick up a lot of shots from UCLA. Their hitters have a lot of range. That means you have to pick up tips and defend the line. We were on a lot of those assignments.
“We’ve been waiting to play well at home,” Cook said. “We’ve had some disappointing performance at home (three Pac-12 losses). I was hoping and praying that we would play well at home, regardless of the outcome, and it happened.”
• The Huskies can claim the outright Pac-12 title with a win Saturday at Washington State. The Cougars (21-10, 11-8), who defeated UW in Seattle 3-1 on Sept. 21, topped USC 3-2 at home Wednesday. WSU is the nation’s No. 1 team in blocks.
• UCLA, which won a national title in 2011 despite finishing second in the conference, was aiming to win its first title since 1999 when it shared first with Stanford. Torey Van Winden had 11 kills to lead the Bruins, who hit just .125 against UW.