IRVINE — A little bit of heart was overwhelmed by a combination of heart and "sole" as top-ranked USC defeated No. 7-ranked UC Irvine in front of 1,659 at the Bren Events Center on Wednesday night.
UCI's most crowd-pleasing display of heart came in Game 3, when the Anteaters rallied from deficits of 17-12 and 24-21 to extend the men's volleyball match that became a 25-16, 27-25, 27-29, 25-18 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation triumph for the Trojans (3-0 overall and 3-0 in the MPSF).
But USC demonstrated some inspiring "sole" to overcome a 20-15 deficit and three set points in an invigorating Game 2 victory.
The key play of the game came with USC trailing, 24-23. Murphy Troy, a 6-foot-8 outside hitter who finished with a match-high 19 kills, was prone on his back after falling to the floor during a point. The ball ricocheted from UCI's side of the net toward Troy, positioned about five feet outside the sideline and roughly 15 feet from the net. As the ball descended toward his right foot, Troy instinctively kicked, sending it back over the net in a rally that USC eventually won. The kick save, at which both coaches marveled later, provided a huge lift for the visitors, who have long been known for their emotional style of play.
"It should be ESPN's Play of the Week," UCI Coach John Speraw said of Troy's dig, which typified a strong defensive performance by USC that translated into a 48-38 advantage in digs. "That's a sweet play. What do you say to that? They were going nuts and you look at that and shrug your shoulders and say, 'OK, nice play.' You try to come back and make a play of your own, but they were so excited, they made a couple more plays and got the game."
USC Coach Bill Ferguson walked toward the court and pumped his fist, Tiger Woods-style, after Troy's dramatic dig, as the Trojans' players, both on the court and on the bench, leaped, cavorted, slapped hands and hugged.
"That was a cool play," Ferguson said. "I'm really glad it happened. I think it's a testament to how hard our guys are working in the gym and that they never give up."
UCI (3-4, 1-2) showed an ability to keep fighting in the third set, finally giving the large crowd reason to stand and cheer by rallying late to give USC its only loss in 10 games this season.
"[The Trojans] made some incredible plays at the end of Game 2 and early in Game 3 and it took the energy out of us a little bit," said Speraw, who no doubt had the same experience in a dominant opening-set showing by the visitors. "I was a little concerned that we may go out in three. I was pretty proud of the guys for grinding through that, getting their energy back and making a couple of plays."
Junior Carson Clark and freshman middle blocker Scott Kevorken, who came off the bench to start the third set, had kills to stave off the third and fourth match points, respectively, in Game 3. Another Kevorken kill gave UCI a 28-27 edge and a USC hitting error allowed UCI to close out the game.
But USC came back with purpose to halt the match, its third straight win over UCI since dropping the 2009 NCAA title match to the 'Eaters.
"We've talked a lot about mental toughness and I was just proud of the way we kept siding out and stayed steady," Ferguson said. "I thought the end of both the second and third sets were indicative of the intensity of both of our teams. I thought we gave these people a heck of a match to watch. I don't know if it was the most technically sound volleyball, but it was certainly exciting as heck."
Troy hit .351 from the right side, while senior Tony Cirarelli blasted 17 kills from the left side for the Trojans, who hit .351 as a team, 109 points better than the 'Eaters.
UCI, which hit .000 in the opening set, had 18 kills from senior outside hitter Cory Yoder, whose father, Bob, played and coached at USC. The younger Yoder hit .500.
Clark and freshman Jeremy Dejno had 10 kills apiece, but Clark, an All-American, hit .050 and Dejno had a team-worst five service errors.
Senior middle Kevin Wynne, starting in place of injured junior Austin D'Amore (ankle), had four kills, a team-best four block assists and one solo block.