LOS ANGELES - In arguably the most significant Spartan volleyball victory in at least 10 years, Michigan State staged a thrilling 3-1 defeat of defending National Champion UCLA, Satuday night at Pauley Pavilion in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Led by 23 kills from All-Big Ten outside hitter Lauren Wicisnki, of Geneva, Ill., Michigan State (25-9) controlled the match throughout and advances to the Sweet 16 where the Spartans will meet rival University of Michigan on Friday in Berkeley, Calif.
"We played defense and had an answer for a lot of UCLA's powerful attacks," said Michigan State's eighth-year head coach Cathy George. "They have two great outside hitters and I think we contained them and played together. That's what we needed to come away with a victory against the defending National Champion at their home."
It will be MSU's first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2002, and the first for George.
Michigan State, which was ranked No. 28 in the most recent national coaches poll, is one of six Big Ten teams to advance to the Sweet 16.
In the decisive Set 4 on Saturday night, MSU fought back from a 13-9 deficit against No. 7-ranked UCLA, fueled by a 4-1 run which started with another Wicinski kill.
Junior Alexis Mathews, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from Detroit Renaissance, ended the match with three straight kills to give the Spartans victory in Set 4, 25-22, and set off a wild on-court celebration.
"It was important that we stuck together through thick and thin and answered the call," George said. "Our team played with a lot of heart and we really got after it."
MSU clinched Set 1, 25-17, on a service ace from Halle Peterson (5-10, Fr., Rockford, Mich.)
In Set 2, the Spartans were down 20-14 when sophomore Taylor Galloway, of Portage, Mich., keyed a 9-4 run by tying the set at 27-27 with a kill.
This coming just eight hours after Galloway had Tweeted dissatisfaction with professors for failing to post their final exam study guides in time for her to get some pre-game academic cramming finished.
Galloway took it out on the Bruins, coming back with another kill to end Set 2 at 29-27 off an assist from junior setter Kristen Kelsay (5-10, Wheaton, Ill.).
UCLA took Set 3, 25-18.
Then the Spartans answered, punctuated by Mathews' decisive blow.
Following the match, Galloway's Tweets were more agreeable.
"Nothing is better than living in California for another week," Galloway Tweeted after the match. Followed by, "SWEET 16 HERE WE COME BABY!!!!!"
The Spartans have advanced to the NCAA Tournament three of the past four seasons.
A victory on Friday would put Michigan State into the Regional Finals for the first time since 1996. MSU made the Final Four in 1995.
As for Friday's opponent, the Spartans split with the Wolverines during the regular season. Michigan State defeated Michigan in Ann Arbor on Oct. 17, but lost to the Wolverines on Nov. 21 in East Lansing in the regular season finale.
Against the Bruins, Kelsay led MSU with 26 assists. Peterson had 24 assists and six digs.
Mathews finished with six kills and four blocks.
Galloway finished with 11 kills and 11 digs, recording her seventh double-double of the season.
Wicisnki is living up to her billing as a difference-maker in helping the Spartans on this run. She was a two-time All-America at Northern Illinois before transferring to Michigan State in June. She selected MSU over heavy interest from 40 other programs and was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA.
Former Spartan football great and MSU Athletics Hall of Famer Clinton Jones attended the match and cheered on the Spartans. Jones is a practicing
chiropractic physician in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Rosielee.
Last year, UCLA defeated Illinois in the National Championship game. This came just a few short weeks after the Spartans upset Illinois at Jenison Field House.
The Spartans are hoping to prove in the next two weeks that they now belong in that same national-caliber peer group. But first, they have to get past their intra-state rival.
SpartanMag.com publisher Jim Comparoni contributed to this report.