Aneesa Heatherington/UBC Thunderbirds
VANCOUVER – The No. 3-seeded Alberta Golden Bears took down the second-seeded UBC Thunderbirds in five sets (25-17, 18-25, 28-26, 17-25, 15-13) to earn a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three Canada West semifinal at War Memorial Gym Friday night.
"We started playing better towards the end, but we didn't execute the game plan as well as we should have," said Thunderbirds captain Irvan Brar. "We missed more serves and lost the passing game for the first couple sets, but I'm glad we could swing it back to 15-13. We had a lot of missed plays and a lot of errors tonight but it was still pretty close - that kind of shows the calibre of our team here."
Alex McMullin led the Golden Bears with 13 kills while standout hitter Taryq Sani finished with 11 kills, two aces and 15 digs in the victory.
UBC and Alberta went shot-for-shot to start the first before a pair of Sani kills made it 12-8. Arran Chambers served an ace for a 14-8 Golden Bears lead and George Hobern blocked Keith West to give the Golden Bears their first set point. Sani closed it out for the visiting side on a UBC over-bump to take the first 25-17.
West smacked a back-row kill to take a 4-2 lead early in the second, and Fynn McCarthy's second ace gave the home team a 14-11 edge. Brar came up with a huge solo block for a 16-12 advantage at the technical timeout, and McCarthy powered the T-Birds to a 25-18 second set victory with a kill, followed by a blistering serve on set point.
Jordan Deshane hit three early kills in the third set to put his 'Birds up 7-3, and his fourth of the set kept the cushion at four points, up 13-9. Alex McMullin's second block drew the Golden Bears within one at 15-16, and they took a narrow 21-20 lead on an errant Brar kill. UBC was called for a net violation with the score knotted at 25 points apiece to hand Alberta their first set point, but McCarthy extended the set with his 13th kill. Sani put his Golden Bears in position to win it again with a block and McCarthy sailed his kill past the baseline to give Alberta the 28-26 win.
The Thunderbirds led from top to tail in the fourth set with a smoking .583 hitting on 16 kills with just two hitting errors. Brar flexed his serving prowess on set point handcuffing the Alberta defence to set McCarthy up for the winning kill to force a fifth.
As a graduating senior, and the team captain, Brar spoke highly of UBC's "Player of the Game" McCarthy.
"He's a first-year kid, but has the confidence of a fifth-year," said Brar. "You can tell by his demeanor - he doesn't care if the guys across the net are way older than him, he's going to play at his own level. He's a big force, he touches twelve feet so he's a sweet kid to have on our roster."
McCarthy put up a team-high 18 kills with three aces while Deshane earned 15 kills on .565 hitting. Brar tallied 11 kills with five digs.
In the deciding set, Sani notched two quick kills to lead 4-1 while errors continued to plague the home team to go down 7-4. McCarthy tied it at seven with an ace, and Byron Keturakis turned the tide with a pair of perfectly placed aces for the first UBC lead of the set at 12-11. Chambers responded with a kill and the Golden Bears never looked back, winning the next three straight points capped off on a Brar serve into the net to take Game 1.
The Thunderbirds' 25 serving errors proved to be costly and they couldn't counteract the eight aces from a top serving team in the regular season.
"We take a lot of risks from the service line, that's been our identity all year and for the most part it's worked out for us but tonight it didn't," admitted UBC head coach Kerry MacDonald. "We made more errors than we're accustomed to and we made them at more costly times, but the aces in that last set are also what kept it close. That's the double-edged sword we're playing with."
What will it take to force a Game 3? "No changes," said Brar. "We're going to stick to the same process we've been doing all season, we're just going to execute a bit better."
UBC will look to extend their season in Game 2 on Saturday night at 8 p.m. PT at War Memorial Gym while Alberta is three sets away from the Canada West final.
PHOTO: Rich Lam/UBC Thunderbirds