Natalie Williams, the two-time NCAA Volleyball Tournament Most Valuable Player, has had to deal with pressure throughout her storied collegiate career, but Friday the UCLA star had a new type of tension.
"I was nervous," the Taylorsville native said. "This was the first time I've played in front of my hometown crowd since high school."Despite the nervousness, Williams made an impressive return to the Beehive State, leading the top-ranked Bruins to a three-game victory over seventh-ranked BYU in the Smith Fieldhouse, 16-14, 15-1, 15-11. Williams, who received a nice ovation from the 2,000-plus crowd prior to the match, had a game-high 20 kills to go along with five blocks in the UCLA victory.
As has become habit for the 5-0 Bruins, they fell behind early in the first game. The Cougars jumped out to a 8-4 lead.
UCLA rallied to score the next six points to take a 10-8 advantage. Again BYU went ahead, with Tumua Matu'u leading the Cougs to five consecutive points, giving them a 13-10 lead. UCLA went on an 4-1 run, however, to tie the game at 14-14. The Bruins were then rewarded with a penalty point due to a BYU rotation violation, followed by the game point to win 16-14.
The first-game loss seemed to demoralize the Cougs in the second game, as they lost without much of a fight, 15-1.
BYU looked strong again in the third game, opening up an 11-5 lead, before once again collapsing. The Bruins scored 10 consecutive points to win the game and the match.
BYU's record is now 1-1.
"We need to work some things out, but it was only our second match and I feel good about how well we played against that team," BYU coach Elaine Michaelis said. "They just don't make mistakes."
A bright spot for the Cougs was the return of All-American Tea Nieminen, who sat out last year and the first match of this season due to a knee injury. Nieminen led the Cougs with 15 kills and two blocks. Shannan Skidmore added 11 kills for the Cougs.
Williams, who is also a star on the Bruin basketball team, feels her volleyball team may well win their third NCAA title in a row. "Everyone is out to beat us, but we know that if we play our game we can beat anybody," she said.