Bears break losing streak with five-set win at Utah

The Cal volleyball team has played several tough matches, but it took a team with only four Pac-12 wins to push the No. 7 Bears into a fifth set for the first time this season.

Really, it was Cal (22-4, 12-4 in the Pac-12) that had to force the fifth after trailing 2-1 to Utah on Thursday night. After seizing the fourth frame, the Bears faced an 8-7 deficit in the final set. Two big kills from Tarah Murrey gave Cal an 11-8 edge, which the Bears extended to 14-10.

The Utes (9-16, 4-12) continued to threaten at Crimson Court in Salt Lake City. Utah fought off three match points before right side hitter Correy Johnson delivered the terminal blow to take a 3-2 victory (22-25, 25-19, 23-25, 25-18, 15-13).

“This was the grittiest our team has played,” coach Rich Feller said. “It was good to see the way the team stayed calm throughout the tough times.”

Early on, the Utes, which upended then-No. 16 Oregon in Eugene less than a week ago, executed in tense moments to seize pivotal points. With the match tied at one set apiece and the third set score knotted at 22, Utah coach Beth Launiere made a lineup change, putting setter McKenzie Odale in the match.

Odale found her younger sister Morgan on the outside for a thunderous kill to give the Utes an edge. The attacking Odale rattled off two more points to clinch the frame and back Cal into a corner with a 2-1 deficit.

“Utah was just swinging for the fences,” Feller said. “They played an extremely good block on us and had a good defense behind them.”

But in the fourth and fifth set, the Bears were the scrappier squad. Down 12-10, Murrey tore up the court for three straight kills. After gaining the 14-13 advantage, Cal never relinquished the lead to force the fifth frame.

“I think our passing was really consistent and we just needed to get those transition plays,” Murrey said. “We did a better job of that and communicating who had what ball. (Setter) Elly (Barrett) just shot a great offense to us.”

Barrett guided the offense to a .316 attack rate in the fifth set, in which everything seemed to come together for the Bears. The Cal attackers had adjusted to the stout Utah block, which logged 18.5 stops in the match, and the Bears’ passing was the best it has been all year, according to Feller.

The 13th year coach was pleased with the road victory coming on the heels of two resounding defeats to UCLA and USC last weekend. The Bears travel to Boulder, Colo., for a Saturday matinee against Colorado at the Coors Center.

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