EDMONTON – Down 2-0 in the set score, the No.4 UBC Thunderbirds forced a third and final game after claiming a five-set comeback victory (21-25, 14-25, 25-20, 25-21, 15-13) against the No.3 University of Alberta Golden Bears in game two of the best-of-three semifinal series, Saturday night at Saville Community Sports Centre.
Sophomore outside hitters Braedon Friesen and Jordan Canham netted 17 kills apiece for the home team, Friesen also adding three aces. Third-year outside hitter Jackson Kennedy also cracked double digits with 16 kills, fourth-year setter Max Elgert adding 58 assists to the stat sheet.
Outside hitters Coltyn Liu and Matt Neaves led the T-Birds with 15 kills each, both also putting up three aces while third-year setter Ben Hooker recorded 48 assists in the victory.
Early 3-0 and 5-1 runs by the Bears got them ahead on the scoreboard, the home team never relinquishing their lead in the opening set. Kennedy led the way with seven kills but it was Friesen who finally earned the 1-0 set score, taking advantage of a bad set by UBC to slam the ball down to the Thunderbird court.
An early 6-2 run for the Bears opened up the second set, never letting their lead fall to less than three for the rest of the set and avoiding any errors while earning a blistering 68% attack percentage. An 11-4 run ended the set, Alberta getting five of the last six points, Canham making the set score 2-0 when his cross-court kill found the T-Bird front corner.
“Stats look good,” relayed Alberta head coach Brock Davidiuk, “but there were some key times that we could have made better decisions, made more aggressive decisions…for all our players.
“I think we just really let our foot off the gas pedal and UBC was more aggressive than us. You can’t win these kinds of games without being aggressive.”
The tide started to turn early in the third set when UBC put up an early 7-4 lead. Alberta eventually tied it up, and did so two more times, but the Thunderbirds kept pulling ahead.
Alberta managed to get within one at 21-20 off a Liu serve hitting the net, but UBC then rattled off four straight points to close out the set, a Friesen attack attempt going long to get the road team back into the match.
“I thought all credit goes to Tyson Smith and Harrison Byrne who came in [during the third set],” praised Thunderbird head coach Mike Hawkins. “Both played well and changed the team’s demeanour on the court. Tyson’s always been a ‘big game’ player and I think he’s been waiting for his opportunity. Credit to him for taking advantage of it.”
Smith, a fourth-year libero who finished the season second among active leaders in career conference digs, didn’t have much to show for his efforts on the stat sheet with only four digs in the overall match, but his first appearance in the third set, earning an assist on the set’s first point, alongside Byrne, a third-year middle, changed the visiting team’s dynamic that continued into the fourth set.
Byrne recorded a kill in UBC’s opening 5-1 run, the Thunderbirds netting their best attack percentage of the night by cracking 40% in the set, Alberta managing to even the score five times, but at 16-16, Canham’s service error led to five straight points for the road squad.
Momentum-wise, that was enough to push the match to five sets, Liu getting set point through the Bears’ block and down to the Alberta front court.
UBC jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the final set and despite some Alberta fight, two straight Neaves kills had UBC threatening series extension with an 8-4 lead before the teams switched sides.
A 6-3 run for the Golden Bears had them back within one of the visitors, but an Elgert serve into the net swayed the momentum back to the T-Birds, Liu sneakily firing a powerful two-handed set towards the Alberta back row, succeeding at putting UBC within one point of forcing game three.
Three straight points by the Golden Bears suggested otherwise but a timely Byrne kill through the Alberta defence, only his third of the contest, cemented a third and final game.
“I’m excited,” comments Hawkins. “Both sides have their big guns playing well. And it was nice to see Matt Neaves have a good rebound from last night. We know what he’s capable of and I think everyone in the conference knows what he’s capable of and it was nice for him to be able to display that tonight.”
“Tomorrow is a second chance,” stated Davidiuk. “We had a big opportunity tonight that we let slip through our hands so I’m looking forward to see the maturity our guys can conjure up and display because we’re going to need that.”
Game three of the semifinal series goes Sunday at 5 p.m. Mountain Time.
Mikasa Players of the Match: ALB – Jackson Kennedy; UBC – Coltyn Liu