Aneesa Heatherington/UBC Thunderbirds
VANCOUVER – Hype night lived up to its name as the UBC Thunderbirds dealt the undefeated Alberta Pandas their first loss of the season in a four-set barnburner Friday night at War Memorial Gym.
There wasn't much separating Canada's No. 1-ranked Pandas from the fourth-ranked Thunderbirds as UBC fought to a 3-1 (25-22, 18-25, 27-25, 25-23) victory – despite the unexpected loss of their star setter.
"We overcame a bit of adversity when Alessandra sprained her ankle in warm-up," said UBC head coach Doug Reimer. "That could've thrown a lot of teams, but good things came out of it for us. Ally still came back and played a role and Olivia…for a first-year…it's impressive at the best of times but to not even know you're going to start?"
Rookie setter Olivia Furlan was a force when called upon to start with just a moment's notice and finished with 37 assists, 11 digs, four blocks and three kills. UBC captain Danielle Brisebois was also impressed with the rookie's performance in the biggest test of the season so far.
"I was just thinking, if I was in first year how I would handle that…she did so well. She's got a tough attitude."
Brisebois was confident her team was ready to accept the challenge of a top-ranked Alberta squad.
"We've been doing a lot of prep for this. Mental prep, and scouting, and video…we were really hyped up for this. It all came together for us."
The veteran hitter lead the 'Birds with 19 kills and the second-most digs behind Furlan with nine. Maggie Li put up seven blocks with four aces, while Juliana Kaufmanis added nine kills and seven digs.
Alberta was down but rarely out, as veteran hitter Meg Casault fired 15 kills and earned seven digs in the loss. Kacey Otto picked up 14 kills of her own with 11 digs, and setter Mariah Walsh had 43 assists to go along with a team-high 14 digs.
Reimer thought his team did well to maintain confidence down the stretch.
"We served well – kudos to Maggie, the third set she almost blew open, but against a team like that it's never over. We played with good aggression. You just have to keep at it and make plays."
Li got the 'Birds on the board with a block and backup setter Furlan smoked two straight aces to give UBC a 10-7 lead. Furlan then came up with a crazy dig and ran across the court for a solo block as the T-Birds led 19-16.
However, two UBC errors, a combination block by Karly Janssen and Shauny Hogg, a Janssen kill, added to a 4-1 run that levelled the set 21-21. Yet another Furlan block gave the Thunderbirds a set point up 24-22, and the rookie setter smacked a first-touch kill to take the opening set 25-22.
In the second, Alberta jumped out to a 6-1 lead that saw kills from Janssen and Vanessa Jarman. That advantaged was extended to 13-7 before a ball-handling violation on the Pandas brought the 'Birds to within two at 13-11. That was as close as they would come, as the visitors won six of the next seven points – thanks in part to three Otto kills – to re-take control, and eventually win 25-18.
Siobhan Finan knotted up the third set at 3-3 on a sneaky tip and Brisebois smacked an ace to go up 4-3 early. Brisebois' 10th kill of the evening was part of a run of nine straight points that widened the gap between the teams to 17-7 in favour of the home side.
The Pandas clawed back with a remarkable surge of their own, claiming eight of nine points to get back within two at 20-18, and eventually tying the set 22-22. The two sides were tied 23-23, 24-24, and 25-25 before a ball-handling error gave UBC an opening. On their third set point, Li smacked a kill to take the game 27-25.
The fourth set proved to be just as tight as the first three with the Canada West foes even at 9-9. Brisebois tied it up again at 15-15 after a marathon rally and the back-and-forth battle continued. Laura MacTaggart powered her fifth kill and a big block to tie it up at 22-22, before giving UBC a match point on a block to make it 24-23. Alberta was called for their fourth-ball handling error and the Thunderbirds handed the Pandas their first loss of the season – winning the fourth set 25-23.
UBC and Alberta will square off again in the T-Birds' final home game of the regular season on Saturday at 5 p.m. PT.
IMAGE CREDIT: Rich Lam/UBC Thunderbirds