Colleges: Anteaters facing steep challenge

UC Irvine's Bren Events Center opened 25 years ago this month. The last five years have created few moments when the venue generates enough excitement from the spectators to clearly constitute a home-court advantage.

The men's basketball team's 86-76 win over visiting and Big West-leading Long Beach State on Jan. 22 of 2011 was one such memory, when the students, as well as the generally more sedate older members of the community rose to their feet and emptied their lungs at levels sufficient to move the decibel meter.

In recent years, men's volleyball, with national championships in 2007 and 2009, has helped raise the roof at the Bren, and the weekend meeting between the No. 1-ranked Anteaters and No. 2 BYU figured to provide more goose-bump moments.

BYU had other ideas on Friday, when the Cougars held off a third-game surge by the hosts to close out a 25-20, 25-21, 28-26 sweep in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation opener in front of 2,741.

The crowd, it appeared, was just getting into it when BYU survived two set points to bring an abrupt ending that emptied the energy in the building in the time it took to exhale.

Saturday's gathering of 2,889, with, like Friday, plenty of BYU faithful in the house, witnessed a more competitive contest, as BYU prevailed, 25-22, 25-19, 15-25, 20-25, 15-9.

As UCI rallied in the third and fourth sets, and for all of the deciding fifth game, the Bren was at its best, as chants of "U-C-I" and "B-Y-U" pushed the adrenaline levels for players on both teams to plateaus generally reserved for the postseason.

There was the rare feeling of pride from UCI fans, as they exhorted what is generally considered the athletic program on campus that is most successful on the national stage.

The energy level from the "Antourage" student section was also noticeably dialed up in the Anteaters' men's basketball home loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Thursday.

Sometimes, all it takes is a core group of vocal rooters to enliven what is notoriously one of the least volatile student rooting sections in Division I athletics.

While the UCI men's volleyball team has 20 regular-season matches remaining, Coach John Speraw was not ambivalent about expressing his disappointment over being swept at home by BYU.

Speraw believes that the Cougars, who are clearly the top team in the nation at this point in the season, can get better as their roster returns to full health at some point in the future.

Should BYU win the MPSF, it would play host to the conference tournament, the winner of which will earn the conference's guaranteed berth in the four-team NCAA championship, to be contested in May at USC's Galen Center.

BYU home crowds are consistently passionate, but the Cougars also claim a huge advantage having greater familiarity playing at altitude. In addition to the thinner air, which puts a premium on conditioning, the flight of the volleyball is also affected. Teams that boom serves regularly are stymied at BYU, as their serves sail a few extra yards beyond the end line.

"We have to change the way we play the game," Speraw said after Saturday's loss, clearly anticipating a postseason visit to BYU. "I have to totally reevaluate what we're doing as a team, because of the likelihood that we'll have to play BYU at BYU.

"I have some very concrete thoughts about the skill set that will allow a team to be successful at altitude," Speraw said. "But I'm not going to share them."

Speraw speculated after Friday's loss that UCI players had been a little too satisfied with their top national ranking, after having won their first four matches, including a four-game triumph over BYU at the UC Santa Barbara Invitational on Jan. 6.

"I honestly didn't give the ranking one thought, but maybe the team did," Speraw said. "Maybe I should have brought it up, but, honestly, I didn't think it was even relevant. I did not think it was relevant to where we were, or relevant to where we would be at the end of the year, or to anybody's journey along the way."

One area that continues to generate concern for Speraw, is his team's inconsistency at the service line. Friday, UCI had four aces and 14 service errors. It had 14 aces and 20 missed serves on Saturday, but a handful of those aces came on float serves, after the 'Eaters dialed down their jump serves.

"We got [the Cougars] in some trouble with our float serve," Speraw said after Saturday's match. "I think our jump serves could get them in trouble, but they weren't being put in enough. Our error ratio [on serves] hasn't budged this season and its got to budge for us to stick with [the jump serves]. I still believe we can serve tough. This team should serve tough all the time. It's frustrating."

UCI fell to No. 2 in the NCAA poll that came out Monday. BYU is No. 1

UCLA is No. 3, Stanford is No. 4 and USC is No. 5. USC visits UCI on Jan. 27.

There are expectations that UCI senior men's soccer standout Miguel Ibarra will be selected in the MLS supplemental draft Tuesday.

There will be four rounds with all 19 teams participating.

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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