LOS ANGELES — In this, the men's volleyball version of the Big Dance, UC Irvine did the equivalent of leaning against the wall, before getting fully into its groove.
For the third straight match, No. 1-seeded UCI fell behind early, allowing No. 4-seeded Penn State to boogie its way to a one-set lead.
But, just like the final two Mountain Pacific Tournament matches, when the Anteaters rallied to win in five games after losing the first two sets, they found their rhythm in time to advance in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship Thursday at USC's Galen Center.
It turns out, all UCI needed to quell a little star-struck anxiety was a quick dose of defeat, as it claimed an 18-25, 25-18, 25-15, 25-19 triumph that moved the 'Eaters one victory away from the program's third national title in six seasons.
UCI (25-5) will face host USC (24-5) in Saturday's championship match at 7 p.m. USC beat Lewis, 25-18, 25-12, 18-25, 27-25.
It's UCI's fourth meeting this season with the No. 2-seeded Trojans, ranked No. 1 in the last NCAA poll, one spot ahead of the Anteaters. UCI got the best of the MPSF regular-season champions twice, including a five-game decision in the MPSF Tournament final on Saturday. They split their two regular-season meetings, with UCI winning in four games at home on Jan. 27, then losing in four games at USC on April 7.
But the Anteaters, who are now 2-1 against the Nittany Lions in NCAA semifinal contests, improved to 9-1 in four-game matches this season, behind a match-high 21 kills from junior All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie.
Tillie, who appeared to be in control of his nerves with seven first-game kills, added seven in a dominant third-game on his way to hitting .500 for the match.
"He was unstoppable at times," Penn State All-American Joe Sunder said of Tillie, a 6-foot-6 native of France who played his first two collegiate seasons in Canada.
UCI Coach John Speraw said nerves had as much to do with Penn State's successful start as anything strategic.
"You don't have very many opportunities a year to play with nervousness," Speraw said. "At some random match in the middle of March, you're not nervous. [But] you come out and you just have a certain natural response to playing under the lights for the first time all year. I thought we came out a little nervous and tight, and we'll be able to talk about that as a team and learn from it. And, I'm telling you, we're not coming out like that on Saturday night. We'll learn from this experience and be much better."
UCI was better from the service line Thursday in a battle of the nation's top two serving teams.
The Anteaters, who came in with an NCAA-best 1.69 aces per set, just ahead of PSU's 1.64, amassed nine aces with only 11 service errors. Penn State, making its NCAA record 27th trip to the Final Four, including 14 straight, had five aces and 12 errors.
But the Nittany Lions made nine errors on service receive, to just five for UCI, which wielded that advantage to full effect, said Penn State Coach Mark Pavlik.
"When they are in system, like they were with their passing," Pavlik said, "it makes it pretty easy to kind of [set the] back row against no block the way Tillie and [sophomore Connor Hughes] does it [hitting the bic set]. We knew we had to knock them off the net and their passers did a real nice job allowing the talent that they have to really shine."
Hughes posted 10 kills, after being blanked in the opening set, and finished with a .364 hitting percentage.
Senior All-American opposite Carson Clark, also held without a kill in the first set, in which UCI hit .100 as a team, 267 points worse than Penn State, finished with nine kills and hit .179. But he did have five aces and just one service error.
Freshman libero Michael Brinkley had a career-high 15 digs, and was errorless while receiving a team-high 29 serves.
"I thought Irvine did a much better job handling our serves over the course of the match," Pavlik said.
UCI middle blockers Scott Kevorken and Dan McDonnell combined for 12 kills and also helped the 'Eaters post a 5.5 to 5 advantage in team blocks.
Junior setter Chris Austin had a match-high 44 assists, but was pulled in favor of sophomore Daniel Stork in Game 4, when Stork had five assists and one ace to help UCI avoid a third straight five-gamer.
"I think we all could have been nervous at the beginning, Tillie said. "We made errors in the first set and everyone was looking at each other. When we started the second set, we were like, 'Let's go. Let's do it now.' Then we got fired up and played our game a little more."
Added Hughes: "Since we've gone down 0-2 twice in the [previous] two matches [losing the opening set] doesn't get everyone as nervous, because we know that as long as we turn it around and get that one game back, that once we have our foot in the door, we can win the rest."
Sunder had 15 kills but hit just .205, as UCI hit .351, just off its national-best .356 average. PSU hit .246.
Connor Curry, a redshirt freshman libero out of Newport Harbor High, led PSU with 12 digs.