CSUN defeats USC in four sets to advance to MPSF Tournament semifinal

    Kevin McKniff (10) and the Matadors defeated the Trojans for the 17th straight time on Saturday at the Matadome. McKniff contributed eight kills and four serving aces. Photo Credit: Hannah Pedraza / Photo Editor

    The third-seeded Matadors overcame a seven-point deficit in the third set to advance to the semifinals of the MPSF Tournament after a tough 3-1 (30-17, 31-33, 33-31, 30-26) quarterfinal victory over No. 6 seed USC Saturday night at the Matadome.

    “That was a heartbreaker,” USC head coach Bill Ferguson said after the game about losing the third set after being up seven. “The bottom line is we didn’t pass and serve well enough tonight and that’s the deal with Northridge…I mean they serve so tough and that was the difference.”

    Leading the way for the Matadors (22-8) was senior middle blocker Jacek Ratajczak, who had a team-high 19 kills, nine blocks, two of which were solo, and one serving ace. Senior Theo Edwards finished second on the team with 11 kills, while fellow senior and outside hitter Mike Gaudino had a double-double with 10 kills and 12 digs.

    “We had to fight back, they came out on fire in that third set,” Ratajczak said. “We were down but we came back. That really helped us because in the next round, that might happen and now we know we can do it again.”

    With the match tied at one set apiece the Matadors fell behind 10-4 in the third before head coach Jeff Campbell turned to redshirt freshman opposite hitter John Baker for a spark of the bench. The move did not pay off right away for CSUN as they fell into a bigger hole falling behind 13-6 to the Trojans.

    “Right before he (Campbell) said ‘if we keep having this rut get ready to go in’ and I was like okay coach you got it,” Baker said. “We had a couple more points that didn’t go our way and he subbed me in.”

    The match took a dramatic turn from that point on, as the Matadors went on an 11-4 run to tie the score at 17. On the next play a kill by Edwards gave the Matadors their first lead of the frame. After USC evened the score at 18, CSUN went on another run this time a 4-0 spurt that gave them a 22-18 advantage.

    The Matadors eventually stretched the lead to 28-23 and seemed poised to take a 2-1 set lead but the Trojans had other ideas thanks to 5-0 run that tied the score once again. USC took the lead two points later and had set point at 30-29 but a kill by senior middle blocker Kevin McKniff tied it once again.

    After tying the score for the sixth time in the frame two points later the Matadors finally won the set after a kill from Ratajczak and an attack error from Trojan outside hitter Murphy Troy.

    “He (Baker) was huge, not only did he play well but he brought fire,” Edwards said. “Every play he gets a point he comes in, he is loud, and he tells the team lets go, he is picking us up and that was key.”

    The fourth set was more of the same as both teams fought and dove for every point; as the Trojans jumped out to an early 8-5 lead that quickly evaporated. A 4-1 run by the Matadors tied the frame at nine, and finally took the lead five points later at 13-12. After CSUN went up 17-14 the Trojans battled back to tie it at 17. USC didn’t get closer the rest of the match as the Matadors tough serving proved to be too much as McKniff finished the game with his fourth serving ace of the night.

    “We been working on our serves all week in practice and coach told me to let it rip and so that’s what I did,” McKniff said.

    With the win CSUN not only moves on to play BYU Thursday night at Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, Calif.  but in the process stretch their personal winning streak against the Trojans to 17.

    The Matadors have played BYU three times this season, winning two out of three including a five set thriller on the last day of the regular season that clinch the third seed for the Matadors and second place conference tie with the Cougars.

    “We like our chances much better playing at sea level than I do at elevation” Campbell said about facing BYU in the semifinals and who plays more than 4500 miles above sea level at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, Utah.