Going into Friday night's top-20 showdown at the Coors Events Center, the University of Colorado volleyball team had not defeated USC in 12 matches dating back to 1988.
Match No. 13 against the Trojans proved just as unlucky for the Buffaloes as the first 12.
The 20th-ranked Buffs pulled out a dramatic win in Set 2 Friday night but were unable to finish the job, ultimately dropping a four-set decision to the No. 23-ranked Trojans.
It was the first Pac-12 Conference victory for USC, which improved to 10-5 and 1-2 in the league. The loss will force CU to try and salvage a weekend split against No. 12 UCLA on Sunday, which also would salvage a split of the Buffs' four consecutive home games to open Pac-12 play.
The loss dropped the Buffs' record to 2-2 this season against ranked opponents. That mark doesn't include last week's loss against Utah, which joined the rankings at No. 25 this week after beating CU.
"We just didn't defend," CU head coach Jesse Mahoney said. "We didn't defend the easy stuff well and we certainly didn't defend the hard stuff well. We need to do those things in order to be successful."
CU trailed just 14-12 in the first set before USC pulled away with an 11-4 set-closing run that gave the Trojans a 25-16 decision. That set the stage for a wild Set 2.
Neither team led by more than two points throughout the final two-thirds of the frame, with USC eventually threatening to take a two-set lead with a 24-22 advantage late in the set.
However, the Buffs were able to thwart two consecutive match points for USC, eventually surviving six match-point situations for the Trojans before pulling out a wild 34-32 win. CU also played at match point five times before Alexa Smith finally pulled the Buffs event with a set-clinching kill.
The missed opportunity that likely will linger with the Buffs occurred late in Set 3. CU was poised to take a 2-1 set lead after building a 20-15 lead, but the Trojans reeled off five consecutive points in an 11-4 run to take the set 26-24. Despite the Trojans' late surge the Buffs still played at match point twice with leads of 24-22 and 24-23, but USC closed with the final four points of the frame.
CU never recaptured the momentum in Set 5 as USC secured the win with a 25-16 decision.
"When you're up that far you definitely have to close out," CU's Joslyn Hayes said. "USC is a phenomenal team and they fought back hard, and when that happens it matters how you stay mentally focused in crunch time. And we lacked that."
Hayes paced the Buffs with a career-high 16 kills, while fellow junior Gabby Simpson turned in another strong all-around game with 12 kills, 27 assists, and 11 digs. Smith remains CU's leader in kills but managed just eight against the Trojans. It was the second consecutive match Smith was held under 10 kills after reaching that mark in eight of CU's first 11 matches.
CU will have another challenge Sunday against a UCLA program that owns a 10-2 all-time edge against the Buffs.
"We just have to have a short-term memory, because UCLA is a tough team," Simpson said. "We've got to play them at the best level we can."
No. 23 USC 3, No. 20 Colorado 1
At Coors Events CenterUSC (9-5, 1-2) 25 32 26 25
Kills — USC: Lanier 19, Withers 16, Abercrombie 15; CU: Hayes 16, G. Simpson 12.
Blocks — USC: Dunn 7, Ruddins 5, Withers 5; CU: Abu 6, Pfefferle 5.
Assists — USC: Meyer-Whalley 32, Leonard 30; CU: G. Simpson 27, McKibben 18.
Aces — USC: Whittingham 2; CU: Shadley 1.
Digs — USC: Whittingham 19, Lanier 18, Leonard 14; CU: C. Simpson 18, G. Simpson 11, Shadley 10.