UC Irvine rallies into Final Four

LOS ANGELES — There was nothing to lose … but the season itself. And there is, after all, nothing more important in the extant life of a college athlete.

The UC Irvine men's volleyball team gave a lesson on life extension, rallying twice in three days from an 0-2 deficit in games to claim victory and the title of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament at USC's Galen Center.

Saturday night, it was a 20-25, 25-27, 25-21, 25-21, 15-12 win over Stanford, as the No. 2-ranked Anteaters followed up their thrilling five-game win over top-ranked USC on Thursday with yet another improbable comeback.

"It's as amazing to me as it is to [the media]," UCI Coach John Speraw said. "To have the emotional energy to do this again a second night … It's amazing to me that those guys came out and did that.

"They all talked about really taking it one game, and one point at a time," Speraw said. "They did a really good job of that. When we were down, 0-2 [in games], you could see it. And when we had a lead in Game 3, it was business. In that respect, they didn't let it get to them and that's really amazing."

The victory propels the Anteaters (24-5) into the four-team NCAA championships, held Thursday and Saturday at the Galen Center. UCI will make its fourth Final Four appearance, its first since winning the program's second title in 2009. UCI also won the NCAA crown in 2007.

Penn State and Lewis are additional conference champions who will be at USC. The fourth team will be an at-large entry. Most believe USC will claim the at-large spot.

UCI junior All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie was the leading force on Saturday, despite playing with a sprained right ankle suffered in Thursday's semifinal win. Tillie had a career-high 24 kills and hit .422. He added a career-high 13 digs, four block assists and one solo block. He earned all-tournament honors.

But there were many more heroes for the winners, including senior All-American opposite and captain Carson Clark, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Clark had 19 kills and five block assists and his kill ended the match.

Sophomore outside hitter Connor Hughes chipped in a career-high 19 kills with a .515 hitting percentage to go along with seven digs.

Senior middle blocker Dan McDonnell had 11 kills on 15 swings (a .600 hitting percentage). He also had five block assists. He also made the all-tournament team.

Junior setter Chris Austin had 61 assists, despite sitting out part of the second game. He had 12 digs.

Senior middle blocker Austin D'Amore came off the bench to start the third set to help turn the momentum for the Anteaters. He finished with four kills, two solo blocks and two block assists. He hit .571 and helped minimize what had been a huge advantage for the Stanford middle blockers.

Stanford senior middle Gus Ellis had seven kills on seven swings in the first two games (a 1.000 hitting percentage). But Ellis, a Corona del Mar High product, had one kill in the final three games.

Clark had a pancake dig midway through the third game to help give UCI a 16-13 lead for one huge point.

"We've been talking about grinding for so long and grinding through points and getting ours when we can, but not worrying about the end product," Clark said. "We did it well in 2009 and I think we're starting to do it on this team. I think teams get scared of us, once we get that one [game]."

Another potential momentum seizer was an Austin solo block in Game 5 that put the 'Eaters up, 12-10.

Stanford closed to within 12-11 and 13-12, before Hughes pounded a bic kill to create match point and Clark capped the comeback with a kill.

"It's great to see it come together when it really, really matters," D'Amore said. "When it's maybe your last match ever, as a senior. I think we've proved we can fight."

Stanford dropped to 22-7.

barry.faulkner@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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