At 16-15 in the fifth set, the Cal volleyball team was down to its last point.
Having already fought of a previous match point, the Bears had a dwindling chance of pulling off their second upset of a top-ranked opponent.
Washington delivered a shot in the final rally that appeared to go just long, sending the crowd into a frenzy. However, amongst the chaos, the referee made the signal that quickly turned the euphoria into stunned silence.
Cal had deflected the ball. Washington won.
Cal (13-12, 7-8) and No. 5 Washington (20-4, 11-4) engaged in a battle on Wednesday night, but it was the Bears who were left with an empty feeling after falling, 3-2 (25-22, 22-25, 16-25, 28-26, 17-15) in the emotional five-set thriller.
“It was disappointing that we came so close, but far from heartbreaking,” coach Riche Feller said. “We just have to keep our heads up and understand that tonight was the best we played all year.”
In the first set, the Huskies jumped out to a quick 8-3 advantage after Cal freshman Nikki Gombar hesitated on a Husky serve, deciding to hit it at the last second.
The teams traded kills following the quick Husky start, as each offense tried to prove its superiority with each new shot.
Middle hitter Shannon Hawari recorded six powerful strikes in the set, single-handedly keeping the Bears close. Washington began to anticipate Hawari receiving the ball, but the squad still couldn’t stop the senior.
Hawari was on an entirely different level than the rest of Cal, recording a stellar .750 hit percentage.
“Shannon is a beast right now,” Feller said. “If anybody watches that match, they will see a first team All-American.”
While Shannon excelled, her team lagged. A team hitting percentage of just .229 in the first set doomed the Bears, who eventually fell, 25-22.
In the second frame, both teams were evenly matched. Eventually, Cal would prevail 25-22 giving the squad momentum going into the break.
In the third set, Cal built a four point lead by the 16-12 mark. At that point, frustration began to set in for the Huskies. A serving error by outside hitter Krista Vansant prompted the sophomore to smack the ball between her legs away from the net.
Washington head coach Jim McLaughlin watched as his team continued to squander opportunities. Cal steamrolled to a 25-16 set victory, converting on more than half their kill attempts in the set.
After recording one block across the second and third sets, the Huskies began with middle blocker Amanda Gil on the bench to begin the fourth.
At 18-21, Feller made a change of his own, bringing in freshman Lara Vukasovic who had yet to play a point. With size in the front three, Cal subsequently went on to take the next two points, one coming off a joint block from Vukasovic and senior Kat Brown.
“Both of us were trying to use our bench anyway we could,” Feller said. “It was a chess match even if [McLaughlin] had more people to use.”
In a thrilling finish to the set that involved an a Cal match point, the Huskies emerged victorious, 28-26.
In the fifth and final set, Washington set the tone by taking the first two points. Cal’s response was a 5-1 run fueled by two kills from senior Corey Johnson.
At 11-11, the nervous excitement was palpable in Haas Pavilion. Six points later, the score remained tied at 14-14.
The match was coming down to the wire.
Finally, Washington prevailed on the final kill. A shocked Haas Pavilion watched as the Huskies mobbed the floor.
“We got tentative in the last set,” Feller said. “We made six uncharacteristic hitting errors. Six in a fifteen-point game is significant.”
Cal now has to refocus for Thursday’s tilt against Washington State. But following the intense and heart-rending match against the Huskies, it will be hard for Cal to forget Wednesday night’s outcome.