LOS ANGELES — Loyola of Chicago was the first first-time participant in the four-team NCAA men's volleyball championship since UC Irvine had that distinction in 2006.
A lot has obviously changed for the Anteaters since that time, as they moved within one victory of their fourth national championship with a 26-24, 25-18, 29-27 semifinal win over the upstart Ramblers on Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.
No. 2-seeded UCI (24-7) looked every bit the perennial power on Thursday, hitting .500 as a team for only the second time this season and bearing down late in the first and third sets to complete their fifth sweep in their last seven matches and win their fourth straight NCAA semifinal.
The Anteaters, who won NCAA crowns in 2007, 2009 and 2012 and have not lost in the Final Four since 2006, will face top-seeded BYU (26-4) on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Cougars, who have beaten UCI twice this season, defeated Penn State, 25-21, 25-16, 25-22, in the other semifinal.
Senior All-American Kevin Tillie led the winners with 14 kills on 19 swings for a .579 percentage. Tillie, who hit for a higher percentage only once this season (.609 with 16 kills against Pacific on April 6) also shared the team lead with seven digs and four block assists, while producing one of the team's three ace serves.
"Tillie didn't seem to be injured at all," said UCI first-year coach David Kniffin, who saw Tillie get only six kills while battling a tweaked knee that temporarily sidelined him in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament semifinal loss to Long Beach State last week. "He stepped up and took some swings and hit over .500. Any time you can do that in the semis, it's pretty special."
But the heroes were as numerous for UCI as their impressive achievements since landing themselves on the national volleyball map seven years ago under then-coach John Speraw.
Junior All-American middle blocker Collin Mehring hit .818 with nine kills in 11 swings without an error.
Junior middle Scott Kevorken had five kills with a .400 hitting percentage and added four block assists.
And junior outside hitter Connor Hughes came off the bench late in the first set to pound nine kills on 13 swings (.615).
But as well as UCI's offense was humming, No. 3-seeded Loyola (22-10) pushed the Anteaters almost the entire way.
UCI rallied from a 20-17 deficit to prevail in the opening set, trailed, 13-12, in Game 2, and withstood two set points for Loyola to close out its 13th sweep of the season.
"It was getting irritating more than nerve-wracking," Kniffin said of the late-third-set drama, during which UCI blew its first three match points.
Both teams utilized quick pace on offense, but Loyola Coach Shane Davis said UCI senior setter Chris Austin (39 assists) was able to take advantage of strong passing from the Anteaters, paced by All-American sophomore libero Michael Brinkley, to earn the advantage.
"Every team here is pretty good and when they get backed into a corner and it's down to the last few points from being eliminated, they start playing just at a notch higher than they had been," Mehring said. "[The Ramblers] definitely stepped up when they needed to and they put pressure on us. But I think we managed it and we played our game and were solid throughout."
Hughes, who emerged as a late-season starter last season to earn all-tournament honors at the NCAA Championship, and sophomore Travis Woloson, who had a couple of late serving runs, helped UCI pull through.
"[Subbing Hughes for freshman Kyle Russell, who had two kills on three swings (.667)] was more feel than anything else," Kniffin said. "There are just so many intangibles when you put a guy like Connor in."
Hughes, who had the kill on match point, acknowledged that having experience in this tournament is a plus. He also made sure to keep his team's focus on the prize.
"It was a pretty sweet feeling," Hughes said of the match-winning kill. "But right after I took that swing, I took the mentality that we aren't done yet. We have another match Saturday."
Loyola sophomore outside hitter Cody Caldwell, a Newport Harbor High product, had a team-best 12 kills and added one of their three aces.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times