UCI shuts down Hawaii

IRVINE — Both teams featured men in black Saturday night; fitting for a match to the death.

Well, at least one men's volleyball team's season was terminated in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament quarterfinal in front of an overflow crowd of 788 at UC Irvine's Crawford Court.

UCI (19-11), ranked No. 3 in the nation and seeded No. 4 in the eight-team tournament that will guarantee its winner a berth in the NCAA Final Four, made it a dark night for the black-clad Hawaii Warriors (15-13), ranked No. 6 and seeded No. 5.

The Anteaters, who featured an entire coaching staff in black suits with royal blue shirts, survived the first two sets, which could easily be considered a battle of wills, before imposing its will to close out a 28-26, 30-28, 25-21 sweep.

The win, its seventh straight, propels UCI into a semifinal duel with No. 1-ranked and top-seeded USC (21-2) on Thursday at the Galen Center.

Despite the sweep, the first round was anything but a breeze for UCI.

"There was nothing about it that was easy," UCI Coach John Speraw said. "We knew coming in it was going to be a battle, because all we've had [with Hawaii] are deuce games. We were just able to make a few more plays, especially in those first two games."

Speraw said an unusual amount of preparation time, as well as experience under postseason pressure for his veteran lineup, were two reasons why UCI was able to prevail.

"We knew 10 days ago who we were going to play in the first round, so we started preparing and watched 10 videos on their team and learn a little bit," Speraw said.

"We've been doing this game plan for five days [in practice], and watching about two hours of video a day," said UCI junior All-American opposite Carson Clark, who had a team-high 17 kills and hit .452 to help the winners hit .505 as a team. "We had it down pretty cold and did what we had to do to stop them."

Clark credited senior setter Anthony Spittle (51 assists) for triggering UCI's offensive efficiency.

Senior outside hitter Cory Yoder had 12 kills and hit .500, while senior outside hitter Jordan DuFault had 13 kills and hit .548.

Freshman Scott Kevorken had six kills and hit 1.000 in the middle, where UCI clearly had an advantage with senior Kevin Wynne (a team-best three block assists), and junior reserve Dan McDonnell (three kills in four swings and two block assists) contributing.

Sophomore libero Will Thomas had a match-high 12 digs and was an emotional catalyst in an atmosphere that both increased adrenaline and frayed nerves.

"It's a learned skill," Speraw said of performing in the intensified postseason atmosphere. "It's hard to simulate, no matter what you do all year, to learn to manage this kind of pressure and how you respond to the nerves."

Nerves got a workout in an opening game in which the score was tied 25 times.

Speraw said his team's ability to overcome a 13-8 deficit in Game 2, as well as sustain a lead throughout Game 3, helps add confidence as his team approaches a showdown with the Trojans.

"There were different types of pressure to deal with and learn to manage," Speraw said. "I think it's great and, hopefully, something we'll be able to grow from and utilize those lessons against USC."

Clark also praised the home crowd.

"It was unbelievable," Clark said of the atmosphere for the 'Eaters' final home match.

"I've never played [at Crawford Court, the backup facility to the Bren Events Center] with it packed, so it was sweet. It was definitely a huge thing for us and, you could tell, it just demoralized [Hawaii]."

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