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Kirshenbaum: Forget the sweep. UW showed it can win uncomfortable

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Kirshenbaum: Forget the sweep. UW showed it can win uncomfortable

Head coach Keegan Cook squats on the sideline of Washington's sweep of Oregon on Nov. 7, 2019.

EUGENE, Ore. — Nothing was relaxing for Keegan Cook on Thursday night in Eugene.

“They were tight for longer than we wanted them to be,” Cook said to open his postgame interview after the No. 14 Washington volleyball team’s sweep of Oregon.

But then again, maybe that’s what the Huskies (18-5, 9-4 Pac-12) needed.

The lopsided match score tells far from the whole story, belying just how close the entire night was. Washington only led by more than five points once — that came at the very end of the first set. Each set stayed close, with 24 ties throughout the night. As each set wore on, the Huskies found themselves once again in a close one, battling point-for-point down every single stretch.

And this time, it all went the Huskies’ way.

“Had to execute late, and we were able to do that,” Cook said.

Just last week, Washington had troubles in this exact situation against USC. The Dawgs had the match in control, but as things tightened, it all unravelled, losing their grip in what could have been a final fourth set and falling for good in a decisive fifth. 

Thursday, though, the opposite happened. As the points climbed through the teens, Washington started to find its groove. In the first set, the Huskies found their lead cut to two at 18-16, then reeled off a 7-3 run to seal it, 25-19. In the third, it was a similar story, with a close 17-16 advantage turning into a 25-20 win.

But the best sign for the Huskies has to be the second set, the closest of the match. The UW saw a four-point lead at 18-14 disappear, with a late Oregon run tying the match at 22-22, then again at 23-23, and again at 24-24. It could have been another USC moment, where one late run allowed flipped the momentum entirely, and changed the story of the match for good. 

Instead, junior Sam Drechsel came through with a kill, giving the Huskies their second set point, and senior Kara Bajema slammed the door with an ace.

That was the story all match long. Things went Oregon’s way plenty Thursday. Washington’s serve receive was about as good as Cook could have hoped for against a UO side that’s one of the best serving teams in the Pac-12, but the Dawgs found themselves out of system often. Instead of ruining runs, though, Washington was able to create them on the fly.

“The past couple weeks, we’ve been working on that part of the game, setting out of system, and taking good aggressive swings in the court,” Drechsel said. “I think that showed through tonight on both sides, on the outside and the right side.”

After the game, Cook and his players, if anything, were unhappy with how long they let Oregon hang around each set. But in a way, maybe it was ended up being a good thing. Washington bounced back from the USC loss with a dominating performance against UCLA, blowing the Bruins out of the water in the first two sets of a sweep. 

Thursday night, the Huskies showed something just as valuable. Not only can they bounce back from a loss — as they’ve done after all five of their defeats so far this year. They can also grind out wins when things aren’t all going right, when they’re not playing their best game, and the other team stays in it.

Even if it keeps Cook uncomfortable on the sidelines.

Reach Managing Editor Josh Kirshenbaum at Twitter: @J_Kirshenbaum

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