COLLEGE PARK -- Coming into the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's women's volleyball championships, UCLA felt it had something to prove.
In the previous two years, the Bruins had reached the national semifinals ranked No. 1, only to go out at that point, losers in three straight games each time.
This year, part of the scenario was the same, as UCLA went into last night's semifinals at Cole Field House with a record of 34-1 and again ranked No. 1.
The outcome was the opposite, however, as the Bruins started slowly, then picked up the tempo in rushing past Louisiana State University, 15-13, 15-10, 15-6.
The victory, achieved before 4,273, boosted the Bruins' winning streak to 32 and raised their record to 35-1. Their only loss was to Nebraska in a Hawaii tournament in early September. The loss left LSU at 34-7.
UCLA moves to tomorrow night's championship game against No. 5-ranked University of the Pacific (30-6). The two-time champions from Stockton, Calif., beat second-ranked Nebraska, 15-13, 11-15, 15-9, 15-12.
As is often the case at this level, none of the teams played well early, appearing tentative. And they seemed to struggle with their ball-handling.
As Nebraska coach Terry Pettit said, "I had the feeling as our match unfolded that neither team was playing at the highest level. I knew if one got into a rhythm, that would be the difference."
It turned out that Pacific's Krissy Fifer, a 6-foot-3 senior with a killer instinct, got in a groove, and setter Melanie Beckenhauer kept finding her and getting her the ball high where she likes it.
There were a lot of unforced errors, but the important thing was that Pacific played through them and got a hot player -- Fifer.
Pacific got it going in the fourth game after Nebraska had forged a 7-3 lead. Then, Beckenhauer served two aces, and Nebraska got caught in a rotation situation while Pacific ran off eight straight points.
Fifer had two kills (hits not returned) in that stretch and, after a brief rest, came back as "The Terminator." Considered a dominating hitter, she came from the left side for successive kills after the Cornhuskers had come within 13-12.
For the match, she had 21 kills and a successful hitting percentage of .514.
DTC UCLA had similar problems getting started.
Defensive specialist Samantha Shaver, a senior and school record-holder for digs (saving the ball off the floor), said: "We had no ball control at the start and our passing offense was a little tentative.
"Then we got our intensity and fire going. We play our best under pressure."
LSU, featuring the power hitting of Monique Adams (she finished with 22 kills, but had a percentage of only .224), rallied from deficits of 8-3 and 10-6 to get a tie at 10. There were three more ties before UCLA broke away.
In the second game, UCLA jumped ahead, 5-0, but LSU drew within 11-10 before the Bruins, led by Jenny Evans, ran out the string.
The third game was all but over after the Bruins took a 7-1 lead.
"Actually, our hitting stats were pretty impressive so maybe were better than I first thought," coach Andy Banachowski said.
In figures that compare roughly to a batting average, UCLA had a successful kill percentage of .381. "And we were around .264 for the season," Banachowski added.
The .259 by Pacific was considered creditable by coach John Dunning, considering the shelling that went on for much of the match. Nebraska ended .152.
UCLA, which got help from its bench as well as its starters, worked at establishing hits to the LSU middle, where sisters Daniela and Luciana Reis, 5-8 and 5-9, respectively, were holding forth.
"Then we went to working the outside," Banachowski said, "and we wound up with a good team effort."
LSU coach Scott Luster said: "I thought we started loose and were playing well, but we were not able to sustain it when we had to."
Adams, the team's top player, may have pinpointed the problem however, when she said: "We were down 0-2 in the regional final [to Texas] and won, so that wasn't the end. I mean we didn't say, 'UCLA. Oh, God.'
"At least I didn't, but you could see that in some faces as the third game wore on. With that, there was no way to pull it off. At certain points, you could just feel the team let up."