Men's Volleyball: UCI upended in five

IRVINE — In a showdown of the nation's men's volleyball elite, two was certainly better than one Friday night.

No. 2-ranked BYU consistently came up with more answers than top-ranked UCI, enabling the Cougars to rally for a 22-25, 24-26, 25-23, 25-23, 15-11 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation victory in front of 2,906 at the Bren Events Center.

UCI (15-4, 12-4 in conference), which came in on an 11-match winning streak that began after a four-game setback at BYU on Jan. 18, handled the visitors in the opening two sets and held leads of 14-8 and 19-14 in Game 3.

But the Cougars (12-3, 11-2) tapped into a sizable collection of rooters to generate the energy necessary to overcome and prevail.

Ben Patch, a 6-foot-8 freshman opposite out of Provo High, carried the Cougars with a career-high 35 kills with a .375 hitting percentage to compensate for a down night from All-American Taylor Sander (eight kills and a negative .049 clip).

UCI posted 17 team blocks, including a school-record 14 block assists by 6-7 junior middle blocker Collin Mehring, who added 11 kills and hit a team-best .556. But whatever advantage their blocking gave them (11-3 after two sets and 15-9 after three before the Cougars eventually closed the game to 17-14), the Anteaters gave away with a season-worst 23 service errors.

UCI did have nine aces, including four from senior All-American Kevin Tillie and three by fellow jump-server Jeremy Dejno. But BYU, which had two aces and only 12 missed serves, gladly took the free points, some of which seemingly rescued them from dire straights.

Kniffin said it was missed float serves more than jump serves that helped gave BYU an unearned benefit.

What's more, UCI's trademark depth failed to produce a hero off the bench and was particularly glaring in the latter stretches of Game 4, when super sub Connor Hughes, who came to the rescue by replacing Dejno in the starting lineup during last season's NCAA title run, made some costly errors in relief.

"We fell into a little bit of a mental slump there," Kniffin said of his team's failure to close out the victory. "The encouraging thing about this is, we didn't lose this match because we were an inferior volleyball team. We got on a roller coaster with BYU and they took us for a ride."

The ride included a 55-38 edge in digs, and narrow advantages in setting and hitting percentages.

UCI had won five of six five-game matches coming in, while BYU had lost three times in four previous five-set opportunities.

UCI sophomore opposite Zack La Cavera finished with 15 kills, but only three of those came in the final two sets and he finished with a .171 hitting percentage.

Dejno chipped in nine kills and hit .292, but Tillie, who hit .295 with 20 kills, eventually became the only reliable weapon for junior setter Daniel Stork (46 assists).

"[Tillie, who also matched libero Michael Brinkley with a team-best nine kills] did what he does," Kniffin said of his team's emotional and production leader. "He was exceptional at times, and I think when things got tight, he started to carry the weight of the team on his shoulders.

"We had some holes tonight, because normally when we have one guy playing down, [Hughes, who had one kill in 11 attacks for a negative .273 hitting percentage] steps in and plays well. Sometimes Connor steps in for Zack and sometimes its Dejno. Tonight, we didn't really have anyone stepping up when someone stepped down."

The loss may cost UCI the ability to host the MPSF Tournament, an even bigger problem, should BYU wind up getting that reward as the conference regular-season champion, due to the altitude factor in Provo.

UCI has eight regular-season conference matches remaining.

"It's really disappointing," Tillie said. "We let them get on a roll and they came back. They are a good team."

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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