Cal Opens NCAA Tourney With Surging Utah State

Photo: Outside hitter Tarah Murrey (4) has been one of the most prolific offensive threats in the Pac-10 this season. Murrey leads the team and was second in the conference with 5.18 kills per set and recorded a .316 hitting percentage.
Emma Lantos/File
Outside hitter Tarah Murrey (4) has been one of the most prolific offensive threats in the Pac-10 this season. Murrey leads the team and was second in the conference with 5.18 kills per set and recorded a .316 hitting percentage.

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The last time Utah State faced a top-five team, the Aggies swept their opponent.

The next time they will take the court against a top-five team will be tonight at 7 p.m., at Haas Pavilion when they square off against the Cal volleyball team in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Utah State's shocking win came over then-No. 3 Hawaii in the WAC Tournament title match.

"Anytime you can get Hawaii, I think it's kind of a nice one," Utah State coach Grayson DuBose said. "We've kind of refocused. It was a nice weekend.

"It's fun to be able to go home over Thanksgiving and enjoy that for a little while."

Though the Aggies (24-8, 9-7 in the WAC) overwhelmed a team that only lost to No. 7 USC this year, junior outside hitter Tarah Murrey says it's not a concern for Cal.

"It's a cue, I guess, for us to step up and really play hard," Murrey said. "And I think it's very good for us going into the tournament playing a team that's solid."

In winning the crown, the Aggies snapped a number of Hawaii's winning streaks - 23 straight matches, 62 sets and 10 tournament titles. They have won nine of its last ten matches.

Cal (25-3, 15-3 in the Pac-10), which is ranked fourth in the coaches' poll but is the seventh overall seed in the NCAA tournament, has its own records to protect tonight.

During coach Rich Feller's tenure, the Bears have made nine straight tournament appearances, and have never lost a first round tilt.

Last week, the Bears were on the wrong side of a big upset, falling to Arizona State in five sets before beating No. 20 Arizona to claim their first conference crown.

Aggies' senior middle blocker Shantell Durrant said that while the team is still riding some of the momentum from its own big upset, it is focusing on tonight's match.

While Utah State did not use all of its court time, the Bears brought some added fire onto the court in Thursday's NCAA-timed 90 minute practice. Despite extra excitement to play, Murrey said Cal maintained a very disciplined, professional mindset in practice and scouting this week.

"(Senior setter Carli Lloyd) just had a little group meeting with us (after practice), and said, 'We've been so focused and we haven't taken the time to have fun on the court too because we've been so focused on the tactical things,'" Murrey said.

Those technical aspects include serving and passing, which both teams said they have focused on regardless of their competition. The Utah State offense is very much like the Bears' system - very fast with a lot of quick balls delivered to the outside hitters.

The Aggies and the Bears also share the title as best blocking team in their respective conferences as well as the distinction of conference champions.

Tonight's match will follow Ole Miss and North Carolina, which tips off at 5 p.m.


Christina Jones covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]

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