IRVINE — UC Irvine junior Kevin Tillie grew up in France and played his first two collegiate men's volleyball seasons in Canada. So, when it came to assessing the storied NCAA championship history of the Anteaters' Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinal opponent on Saturday, UCLA was not so much an imposing force as a pain in the rear.
Rather than 19 NCAA titles and the swan-song 50th season of legendary Bruins Coach Al Scates, all Tillie could think about was his woeful negative .222 hitting percentage (two kills on nine attempts with four errors), in the Anteaters' three-set loss to UCLA on March 31 at Crawford Court.
Things were much different this time, as Tillie, one of the most explosive players in UCI history, produced 20 kills and hit .432 to lead the No. 4-seeded 'Eaters to a 25-14, 23-25, 25-16, 25-23 victory over the No, 5-seeded Bruins.
The win propels No. 2-ranked UCI (22-5) into an MPSF semifinal against top-seeded and top-ranked USC on Thursday at the Trojans' Galen Center.
The Anteaters, who won three of four matches against UCLA (22-8), avenged the straight-set thumping administered by the Bruins in their final regular-season meeting. And Tillie was not the only major difference.
"The biggest difference was, we passed the ball significantly better than the last time we played them, and that allowed us to hit at a really high rate," said UCI Coach John Speraw, whose team, which came in leading the nation in hitting percentage, hit .398, 214 points better than the Bruins. "Our offense really did a nice job. Secondly, I thought we did a much better job executing."
UCI posted a 12-9 advantage in team blocks, considered one of the Bruins biggest strengths.
"That is significant, because that is UCLA; that's what they do," Speraw said. "We took some chances and I think our middle blockers did an outstanding job tonight. This is a [UCLA team] that is middle dominated, but I think our middles did a better job of slowing them down than they did against ours. And our middles were able to get a lot of stuffs on their outside hitters."
UCI sophomore middle blocker Scott Kevorken had five block assists and two solo blocks, while producing four kills on six swings (a .667 clip). Senior middle Dan McDonnell had eight kills on nine swings (.889) and chipped in three block assists, one solo block and one ace.
UCI senior All-American opposite Carson Clark, the only player to ever earn first-team All-MPSF recognition four straight years, had 14 kills and three of the 'Eaters' six aces.
Junior setter Chris Austin had 46 assists and a team-best nine digs, and another key contributor was sophomore outside hitter Connor Hughes.
Hughes, who just recently replaced first-team All-MPSF performer Jeremy Dejno in the starting lineup, had eight kills and hit .389 on 18 swings. He had just one error while fielding 22 serves and earned praise from Speraw.
Speraw, who played and coached at UCLA, downplayed any speculation that he may replace Scates at his alma mater. Instead, the UCI head man, who is chasing his third NCAA crown in 10 seasons at the helm, focused on his team's progress. He did say ending UCLA's season, and sending Scates into retirement, was bittersweet.
"I, truthfully, was really hoping that [UCLA] was on the other side of the [MPSF] bracket and somebody would beat them along the way, so I wouldn't have to face him," Speraw said. "It's tough. But then I was thinking it probably better to meet them in the first round, rather than the Final Four, where [the UCLA coaching job] would be all the media talks about. Now, we can put those questions to rest for awhile and focus on our next opponent and making sure we're playing better volleyball."
Tillie was less conflicted.
"I don't know about any of that [UCLA tradition] Tillie said. "I never care whose [across the net], but I know our whole team was fired up to beat UCLA."
A win against USC would likely secure at least an at-large berth in the four-team NCAA championships, to which the MPSF Tournament champion has an automatic berth. Even a loss to USC would give UCI a chance to earn the at-large berth.
UCLA seniors and Newport Harbor High products Kyle Caldwell (33 assists) and Weston Dunlap (four kills and six block assists) saw their college careers end.