'Birds advance to Final Four with 3-2 win over WolfPack

'Birds advance to Final Four with 3-2 win over WolfPack

Aaron Martin/UBC Thunderbirds

VANCOUVER - The Blue and Gold are moving on.

The UBC Thunderbirds women's volleyball team (20-4 regular season, 2-0 playoffs) needed every single point on Saturday night at War Memorial Gym, weathering a furious comeback attempt from the Thompson Rivers WolfPack (13-11, 0-2), to claim a five-set win and earn the 2-0 sweep in the Canada West playoff quarter-finals.

Fifth-year senior Danielle Brisebois was explosive in her final career game at War, notching 17 kills, three aces, and nine digs in the win. Maggie Li was a two-way force in the middle, notching 13 kills on just 24 swings, adding five blocks. Like Brisebois, fifth-year outside hitter was playing her final home match, and notched eight kills and five digs.

Final set scores were 27-25, 26-24, 19-25, 19-24, 15-13.

"[Thompson Rivers] was excellent tonight," said UBC head coach Doug Reimer. "I haven't seen them play that loose, that well, at any other point this season. Really a phenomenal effort from them, and Pakhomenko, especially in that fourth set, was playing like she didn't want her career to end here. With that said, it's good that we still found a way to make enough plays when we needed them, enough to get the result that we wanted."

After building up a 2-0 set lead and watching TRU claw their way back on the strength of senior Iulia Pakhomenko and Rachel Windhorst, who finished with 20 kills apiece, the final frame was one to remember.

With the crowd split between TRU orange and UBC blue, the two sides battled to an 11-11 stalemate. Brisebois then nailed a kill before a Ciara Hanly block put the 'Birds up 13-11. Windhorst and Brisebois swapped kills to put UBC on the brink of victory, up 14-12, before Pakhomenko kept the Wolfpack alive with a kill of her own.

The second match point was the last one the 'Birds needed, as Laura MacTaggart tagged the back line to move UBC through to the conference semis.

The first set nearly slipped away from the 'Birds. After a quality performance in the early stages of the frame, UBC built up a 19-14 lead behind some terrific defensive work.

Then, with the 'Birds up 24-21, attacking errors from MacTaggart and Brisebois, coupled with a kill from Pakhomenko, drew the WolfPack even at 24-24.

After Brisebois and Pakhomenko traded kills to make it 25-25, a service error from TRU's Mikayla Funk put UBC back up 26-25. Li got the 'Birds that crucial first set on the next point, getting the block off of Funk and getting the ball to the ground to end the frame.

Down 7-2 in the second set, the 'Birds reeled off a 14-6 run in which the T-Birds terrific defensive coverage went to work. UBC forced six attacking errors over the run, also getting aces from Brisebois and Hanly en route to taking a 16-13 lead by the media timeout.

The final stages of the second stanza seemed like déjà vu. With the 'Birds holding a 23-21 lead, a Li kill was answered by two from Windhorst and an ace from Wolfpack setter Abby Spratt, tying it up at 24-24.

Then, the 'Birds came through in crunch time once again, as Li dropped another kill before Kaufmanis sealed the 26-24 win for UBC with a dagger of an ace.

In the third frame, the Wolfpack broke open a back-and-forth set just ahead with a 5-1 run that bridged the media timeout. Up 15-14, Thompson Rivers got two kills from Windhorst, one from Kaitlin Lomas, and a pair of key blocks to open up a 20-15 advantage, eventually rolling to their first set win of the night by a 25-19 score.  

The fourth set wasn't all that close – behind a dominant frame from Pakhomenko, the Wolfpack took a commanding 20-13 lead. Though the 'Birds closed the gap to as few as three, at 21-18, Thompson Rivers notched an ace and a kill in the set's final stages, keeping the Wolfpack' season alive for at least a set longer.

The sweep of the WolfPack now sets up another all-BC matchup in the Canada West Final Four, which runs from next Friday, March 10 to Saturday, March 11 in Edmonton, as the 'Birds will take on the second-ranked Trinity Western Spartans (21-3). 

The other semifinal will see the host and No. 1-seed Alberta Pandas (22-2) take on the winners of the Calgary Dinos-UBC Okanagan quarterfinals series.

"It's huge that we were able to come away with two close wins in this series," said Reimer. "It's great that we've shown that ability to buckle down and pick up points when we absolutely need to, but still, we'll need to raise our game if we want to go against Trinity Western and come out strong."

IMAGE CREDIT: Wilson Wong/UBC Thunderbirds