UCI tops No. 1 USC in semis

LOS ANGELES — UC Irvine men's volleyball coach John Speraw said USC had managed to win the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular-season title and the top national ranking without facing a most formidable opponent: pressure.

But by rallying from a two-game deficit to force a fifth set in the MPSF Tournament semifinals Thursday at USC's Galen Center, Speraw's Anteaters squarely placed the burden of pressure on the No. 1-seeded hosts.

By that time, UCI was at least as formidable a concern for USC, and the Anteaters prevailed to close out a 24-26, 23-25, 25-16, 28-26, 15-9 victory to keep their NCAA title hopes alive.

UCI junior All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie led the No. 2-ranked Anteaters (23-5) with 23 kills and hit .372, despite having limped off the court briefly with what appeared to be a right ankle injury early in Game 2.

Senior outside hitter Kevin Carroll came off the bench late in the third set to contribute 12 kills, while senior All-American Carson Clark finished with 14 kills for the winners.

Clark had three aces and Tillie two as UCI totaled eight aces, while committing 26 service errors.

With the win, UCI advances to face Stanford (22-6) in the final on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Galen Center. The Anteaters and Cardinal split their two regular-season meetings with Stanford sweeping host UCI on Feb. 17 and the 'Eaters posting a four-game triumph at Stanford on March 3.

Saturday's winner gets an automatic berth in the four-team NCAA Championship, held May 3 and May 5 at the Galen Center. Should UCI lose Saturday, it would likely battle USC for the lone at-large berth into the Final Four.

UCI junior setter Chris Austin had a match-high 62 assists as the Anteaters amassed 74 kills and hit .290 as a team. Austin also led the 'Eaters with 12 digs, one more than Tillie.

USC (23-5) had 46 kills and hit .194 as a team. In the fifth set, UCI hit .360, while the Trojans hit .053.

UCI sophomore outside hitter Connor Hughes had a season-high 10 kills in the early going, but was eventually pulled in favor of Carroll.

"I pulled [Hughes], because he wasn't playing well on the pins, so I decided to play a senior. I gave Carroll a chance to save the day and he did."

Said Tillie: "Coming onto the court for the third set, we said we've been close. We wanted to just keep playing hard. We just stopped thinking about being in the semis and just started to play."

UCI had opportunities to seize control of the match in the opening two games. The Anteaters led, 10-7, 12-10 and 14-12 in Game 1. UCI's final lead was 17-16, as USC kept fighting, until three UCI gave the Trojans their final three points.

UCI led, 10-8 and 14-12 in Game 2, but USC scored five of the next six points to assume control, 17-15. UCI pulled even at 19-19 and the score was knotted at 20, 21, 22 and 23.

USC senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli, the MPSF Player of the Year, blasted back-to-back bic kills to give the Trojans their two-game cushion.

UCI had seven team blocks and hit 371 points better than the Trojans to dominate Game 3, which ended with an errant kill attempt by Ciarelli that sailed way beyond the endline. The fiery co-captain then smacked the side of the official's tower and turned and yelled something toward his teammates. It was the first definitive sign of a crack.

UCI scored the first five points of Game 4 and eventually led, 7-1. But USC continued to battle back. UCI led, 23-21, but USC pulled ahead, 25-24.

Tillie, however, rose the occasion to lift UCI into a final set. Tillie's kill pulled UCI even, 25-25, then he won the game on an ace that Ciarelli could not handle.

UCI scored four straight points to claim a 10-6 advantage in the deciding game. After Ciarelli fired a jump serve into the net to give UCI a 13-8 lead, Clark looped a kill attempt wide.

Sophomore middle blocker Scott Kevorken had a quick-set kill to create match point and Tillie finished it out with a kill.

Stanford defeated BYU, 25-21, 17-25, 25-19, 35-33, in the first semifinal Thursday, despite having fewer kills (67-62) and fewer team blocks (16.5 to 11) than the Cougars. Stanford 6-7 senior first-team All-American Brad Lawson led the winners with 17 kills, but he hit .196.


Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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