Written by Sarah Bergstrom and Caroline Deisley, USC blog contributors
NCAA Women's Volleyball Regional Semifinal: No. 6 USC (28-5) vs BYU (24-6), Friday Dec. 13 7 p.m. PT
Tonight the Women of Troy take to the court to face the BYU Cougars for their 10th appearance in the NCAA regional semifinals in the last 13 years. Head coach Mick Haley believes his team is peaking at the right time, "Right now we're probably at the best level we've been at since we started in August and that was our goal, to get better every week," said Haley. "We've done that through this tournament, we've tried to improve in all facets of our game. We feel pretty confident that we're ready to be challenged."
Here's a preview of Friday's matchup...
After losing in the Sweet Sixteen last year, the possibility of a return seemed unlikely especially with the loss of 6-foot-7 Jennifer Hamson who decided to redshirt her senior season, but the Cougars have seen exceptional play from outside hitters Alexa Gray and Tambre Haddock. USC head coach Mick Haley recognizes the challenge of a developing BYU team that just keeps getting better. "I've done this a long time. BYU teams were always stressful to get ready for because you knew they would always be physical," said the veteran head coach. "I think they hustle, they play hard, and they have a couple of really good point-scorers." BYU is heading into the matchup Friday against No. 6 USC coming off a thrilling 5-set victory against Hawaii.
Trojans to Watch
The senior libero needs no introduction as she has carried this young USC team all season. Coming off a 13-dig performance against Cal-State Northridge in round two of the NCAA tournament, Hagglund was awarded the 2013 Pac-12 Scholar Athlete of the Year and was named a First Team Academic All-American, making her just one of 14 athletes at USC to be recognized as an All-American both athletically and academically. She also was selected to the All-Pac-12 team for the third time. Hagglund, who shattered the record books in October when she became USC's career leader in digs (currently at 2,310), leads the Pac-12 in digs entering Friday's matchup with 604 on the season averaging 5.30 digs per set. Look for the senior to not only add on to that total but also to control the match as she plays in her last home-stand and final NCAA regional tournament.
The freshman outside hitter is coming off a stellar performance so far in the NCAA regional tournament with four kills in USC's three-set victory over Cal State Northride and a team-best 10 kills in the Trojans three-set victory over New Hampshire. Nwanebu has contributed immediately as a powerful right-side hitter and strong defensive threat. The freshman has started 32 of 33 matches and enters this weekend with 365 kills and 93 blocks for the season. She also is the only freshman to rank in the Pac-12's top 10 for hitting percentage (.339), and she has 21 matches with double digit kills this season. Nwanebu's exceptional performance was recognized by the conference as she was just recently named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and the Pac-12 All-Conference Team. Expect the 6-foot-4 freshman to continue her success Friday against a much smaller BYU team.
Bump, Set, Spike
This weekend All-American libero Natalie Hagglund will play her final match at the Galen Center. The senior has earned impressive accolades since her first season as a Trojan and she will leave USC as one of the school's most accomplished women's volleyball players of all time. While Hagglund hates to see her athletic days as a Trojan come to a close, look for her to leave it all on the court come Friday.
"It's incredible to be (playing in my final game) at home having the support of my friends and family and teammates," said Hagglund. "It's sad to see the time dwindling. I never realized what this opportunity has really meant to me until now. I've been taking a look back at it, at the relationships I've made and the opportunities I've been given, and I couldn't be more blessed to be playing this round at the Galen Center."
The Queens of the Court
Home court advantage is an understatement when it comes to the USC women's volleyball team. The Women of Troy are 107-11 all-time at the Galen Center with their most recent home loss against Washington in October. With the energy of the Trojan Family and the familiarity of their own locker rooms, court, and game day routine, USC is setup for success this weekend.
Physicality & Focus
In order to beat the Cougars, the Trojans must maintain their physical style of play that only developed throughout their challenging regular season schedule in the Pac-12. USC is 3-0 all-time against BYU, and with help from a definite height advantage, can continue that unbeaten streak with strong performances at the net. Despite approaching a potential rematch against Pac-12 Champion Washington on Saturday, Haley says his team is focused on their first task at hand.
A victory over the Cougars would send the Trojans to the regional championship against the winner of No. 3 Washington and No. 14 Kansas on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. PT. Washington is one of only five teams ever to have defeated the Trojans at the Galen Center and pose a threat with strong blocking and physical play. Kansas is making its first appearance in the NCAA regional semifinals this weekend after hosting rounds one and two and defeating Wichita State and Creighton last weekend.
To catch Friday's regional semifinal game tune into ESPN3 at 7 p.m. PT. The regional championship will be played on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. PT on ESPNU. Follow @USCWomensVolley for in-game coverage all weekend.