UCI sweeps to NCAA title

LOS ANGELES — All through its postseason run, the deepest team UC Irvine men’s volleyball Coach John Speraw ever had kept shuffling the deck. But in the NCAA final against top-ranked USC on Saturday night, the Anteaters merely rode their same hot hand.

Senior opposite Carson Clark, a four-time All-American, pounded a match-high 22 kills with a .465 hitting percentage to help the No. 2-ranked ‘Eaters top to Trojans, 25-22, 34-32, 26-24, in front of 9,612 at USC’s Galen Center.

The victory, in front of the third-largest NCAA championship men’s volleyball crowd ever, gave UCI the program’s third NCAA crown in six seasons. Men’s volleyball now matches men’s water polo with three NCAA titles for UCI.

“Carson is the man,” summed up UCI junior setter Chris Austin, who also stepped up with 48 assists and a team-best 15 digs.

Clark, the school’s all-time kill leader with 1,861, had 10 kills in Game 2 to help UCI (26-5) rally from a 14-7 deficit. He had seven more in the third set, by which time Speraw had delivered instructions to Austin about going to the go-to guy. He was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

“Carson hadn’t been great for a couple weeks, offensively,” said Speraw, who figured Clark and outside hitter Connor Hughes [13 kills and a .357 percentage) would need to play well since he anticipated USC keying heavily on outside hitter Kevin Tillie and the middle blockers. “So, for him to come out and hit .465 in the last match of his career is unbelievable. I actually was a little frustrated with [Austin] in the middle of the match that he wasn’t setting [Clark] more. I actually told Chris at the end, ‘Every transition ball, you set Carson; every single ball. Set him until we go home.’ ”

UCI, which rallied from a two-set deficit to defeat USC in the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament on April 26 at the Galen Center, sent the Trojans home without their first NCAA title since 1990.

Clark had half of UCI’s six aces to up his school career record to 183, as the Anteaters hit .320 as a team, to USC’s .297. UCI’s 59 kills were 14 more than USC’s and the Anteaters stayed close in the blocking battle, losing, 7 to 6.5.

Tillie, who had been the leading attacker in the postseason, had 11 kills. But, just as in a late-season loss at USC, when he had three kills, he was limited to a .100 hitting percentage.

“Tonight, we stopped Tillie, which was the absolute goal in our game plan,” said senior All-American Tony Ciarelli, who led USC with 18 kills and hit .289. “And Clark picked up his game.

“I thought it was pretty clear that UCI was the better team,” said Ciarelli, a Huntington Beach High graduate “And you’ve got to give all the credit to them. They really peaked at the end of the season.”

UCI, which has used its depth to make impactful substitutions in its previous three postseason wins, relied on the starters Saturday.

Senior middle blocker Dan McDonnell had five kills, hit .571 and added two aces, one solo block and three block assists.

Sophomore middle Scott Kevorken had six kills, while freshman libero Michael Brinkley matched Clark and Tillie with eight digs. Brinkley (20) and Hughes (32) also were error-free receiving serves.

Tillie, Hughes and Austin joined Clark on the all-tournament team.

In the second game, USC (24-6) seized leads of 8-4, 10-5, 12-6 and 14-7 before UCI began whittling away. The Anteaters scored five straight to pull within, 17-16, and took a 19-18 lead on the strength of an 8-1 run.

Austin said Clark provided the inspiration for the comeback, which he capped with a kill to win the set.

“Honestly, Carson Clark,” Austin said of the reason UCI was able to rally in Set 2. “Carson annihilated a ball to the 11-foot line and right when he hit that ball, I said, ‘We have a shot.’ I was thinking we might go four games, but as soon as he hit that ball, it made me think of the depth. I mean, nothing is impossible for this team. Down, 2-0, we figure it out. Down, 14-7, we figure it out. The other night, [sophomore setter] Daniel Stork came in down, 12-6. He figured it out. This team is relentless when it comes to coming back in matches.”

The title adds to NCAA crowns won by UCI in 2007 and 2009, the latter by beating USC in the final.

Newport Harbor High product J.B. Green, a sophomore libero, led USC with 11 digs.

Twitter: @barryfaulkner5