Trojans hold off 'Eaters

LOS ANGELES — UC Irvine could not surmount the challenge presented by No. 1-ranked USC Thursday in the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament.

And it appears, based on criteria to award the at-large berth into the four-team NCAA Championship, the Anteaters similarly do not have what it takes.

So, the No. 2-ranked Anteaters' fifth straight loss to the Trojans, a 25-19, 22-25, 25-20, 25-23 verdict in front of 1,550 at the Galen Center, will put an end to UCI's bid for a third national title in five seasons.

"I don't think that we do," UCI Coach John Speraw said when asked if his team (19-12) stood a chance to earn the at-large berth. "I'd be surprised. My understanding of the criteria is such that with our head-to-head [record] vs. BYU [UCI was swept twice at BYU in January] and Stanford [UCI lost in five at Stanford and fell to the Cardinal in four at home] means we probably don't get the nod over those two teams.

"The way the NCAA designs [the at-large bid] is that it's a reflection of the entire body of work from the entire season. I think it's unfortunate because I think we're actually playing pretty good volleyball. I think we are the No. 2 team in America, but we're not going to compete in the national championships, because the hot team is supposed to use the [conference] tournament to qualify and we came up a little short."

USC (23-2) hit .381 as a team, had seven aces to UCI's two, and received quality production from its three All-Americans. Junior Tony Ciarelli had a match-high 23 kills and he hit .447, while senior opposite Murphy Troy had 17 kills and a .455 hitting percentage. Senior setter Riley McKibbin had 55 assists and two aces.

UCI All-Americans Cory Yoder, a senior outside hitter who was named to the first team Thursday, and junior opposite Carson Clark, a second-team choice, had four and 14 kills, respectively. Yoder, who came in hitting .417 on the season, was benched late in Game 3 and did not return. He finished with four kills and a .105 hitting percentage.

Senior Jordan DuFault led the 'Eaters with 16 kills and wound up hitting .353.

Senior middle blocker Kevin Wynne (three kills), and freshman middle Scott Kevorken (three kills) were also pulled at various times, as Speraw said he tried to seize an opportunity to beat USC on a night the Trojans were less than their best.

"It was absolutely there for the taking," Speraw said. "I think the hardest part is that we had some good opportunities, but we just didn't get great sets and great swings.

"With our seniors, you just want them to win and want them to be successful,"

Speraw said. "I think none of these seniors played the way they wanted to play.

That's why they are heartbroken.

Speraw praised DuFault for his strong finish in the match and credited freshman reserve outside hitter Jeremy Dejno (six kills, a .333 hitting percentage and one ace) with providing a lift when inserted for Yoder.

"That's probably the hardest sub I've had to do this year," Speraw said. "But we needed another stick. And, gosh, Dejno came in and was just awesome."

USC Coach Bill Ferguson said the Trojans, who advance to face UC Santa Barbara in the title match at home Saturday night, believe they eliminated a team that might have given them trouble at the Final Four next week at Penn State.

"I think Irvine and BYU have played us the best out of anyone," Ferguson said. "I think [chances for an at-large bid] are really stacked against [the Anteaters]. But do I think they are playing the best volleyball right now? Absolutely."

Added Ciarelli about UCI: "They are a team that I really worry about just because they are smart. They are a fun team to play against and an even more fun team to beat."

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