Aaron Martin/UBC Thunderbirds
VANCOUVER - The 'Birds are going to nationals.
By sweeping the Brandon Bobcats (14-10, 0-2) with a five-set win in Game 2 of the Canada West quarter-finals on Saturday night at War Memorial Gym, the UBC Thunderbirds (16-8, 2-0) not only punched their ticket to the Canada West Final Four, but also secured a spot at the 2017 U SPORTS Men's Volleyball Championship in Edmonton.
With the Alberta Golden Bears serving as the hosts for nationals and winning their way into the Final Four, all three other Canada West semifinalists, including the T-Birds, are guaranteed a place at the national championship.
Against the Bobcats, the fifth set was a spectacular display of the Thunderbirds' offence. Once knotted up 5-5, outside hitter Irvan Brar smashed seven of his game-high 26 kills over the latter stages of the decisive set, on several occasions powering through blocks to fuel the UBC offence. Red-shirt freshman Jordan Deshane also came up huge in the 15-9 final frame, with one of his two blocks serving as the game-winner for the 'Birds.
Final set scores were 20-25, 37-35, 25-12, 24-26, and 15-9.
"Brandon attacked well, and they defended us really well at the net, which we knew was their strength coming in," said UBC head coach Kerry MacDonald. "I don't know what it is about five sets, I mean I'd like to win in three once in a while, but I'll take the result every time."
The first set saw the Bobcats open on a 5-1 run and keep rolling from there. The 'Birds never managed to cut the Brandon lead down to less than three points, as they dropped the opening set 25-20. Brar notched five kills in the first frame. Roy Ching was the most productive Bobcat attacker in the set, racking up four kills.
The tail end of the second set was remarkable. Initially holding a 24-23 advantage, the Bobcats had 11 separate set points as they continued to put themselves in position to take a 2-0 set lead, but on seven of those occasions, gave the ball back to UBC on service errors. The 'Birds, meanwhile, continued to stay in the contest thanks to some phenomenal defence and a couple of timely kills from Brar.
Finally, down 35-34, UBC got consecutive kills from Brar, Mat Guidi, and Cam Fennema, putting the set to bed and equalizing 1-1.
"You don't see too many like that," noted MacDonald. "We got a bit lucky that they had some trouble with serves late there, but we did well to stick in there and finally got a few timely points at the end to get it done."
The third frame wasn't quite so close, as the 'Birds dominated the set from the get-go. A Brar ace and a bullet kill from Guidi highlighted an early run that saw UBC go up 7-2.
Later, up 13-6, a pair of back-to-back Fennema aces kicked off another 6-2 run for the 'Birds. The 'Birds would wrap up the 25-12 set at the net, with Joel Regehr and Matt Santema teaming up to block Brandon's Brady Nault.
With UBC trailing for most of the fourth frame, the Bobcats held just a 16-14 advantage coming out of the media timeout. The 'Birds did well to claw their way into the lead, as an ace and kill from setter Byron Keturakis were key parts of an 8-4 run that had the 'Birds in front 22-20.
Ching took over in the final stages of the fourth, as the Brandon senior had an ace and two kills to keep the Wildcats' season alive with a 26-24 win.
Even with a spot at nationals now locked up, MacDonald made it clear that the T-Birds' focus is still squarely on next week's conference championships.
"All year, we've taken things one game at a time," said the coach. "We're not looking beyond our next opponent in the Final Four, and we're certainly not thinking about nationals yet. Against Brandon, all we wanted to do was come out, focus on the first point, and go from there. We have that same mindset going forward."
Coming in as the third seed in Canada West, the 'Birds will take on the No. 2-seeded Trinity Western Spartans in the Final Four next Friday in Winnipeg.
The host and top-ranked Manitoba Bisons will take on the No. 4-seeded Golden Bears in the other semifinal.
IMAGE CREDIT: Wilson Wong