Men's Volleyball: 'Eaters trounce Penn St.

IRVINE — The No. 4-ranked UC Irvine men's volleyball team has been showing its dominance, its depth and its season-long preparation for the opportunity to defend its 2012 NCAA championship. But in its regular-season finale Saturday night against No. 13-ranked Penn State, the Anteaters were, at times, simply showing off.

UCI (22-6) hit .368 as a team, 238 points better than the Nittany Lions (19-7), while also posting advantages in aces (7-1), team blocks (8.5-7.5), digs (24-16) and setting percentage (.474 to .284) on the way to a commanding 25-20, 25-20, 25-14 nonconference triumph.

It was the fifth straight win for the 'Eaters and the fourth consecutive sweep. Coach David Kniffin's squad is unbeaten in April and will be the No. 2 seed in the eight-team Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament that begins with a home quarterfinal against UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.

"It was definitely fun tonight," said UCI setter Chris Austin, who was among three players honored on senior night. "It was good to compete against a team not in the MPSF, so we could play a little bit looser. We're getting better as a team, so that's most important for us. We keep playing well and playing with energy and playing as if we're the underdog, which is good for us."

It's difficult to be the underdog when senior All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie is displaying his typical postseason dynamism. Tillie, who has been slowed by injuries and even sat out some matches in recent weeks, led the winners with 12 kills. He hit .455 and added one ace and five digs.

"[Tillie] is a fun player to be around, because he is going to make plays for you in several areas on the court," Austin said of the 6-foot-6 outside hitter from France. "When he's feeling good, he's obviously a highlight-reel player to watch and that's fun for us."

Sophomore outside hitter Zack La Cavera added 10 kills and hit .333, while contributing five digs, three block assists and two aces.

Outside hitter Kyle Russell, a 6-9 freshman recently inserted into the starting lineup, had eight kills. He hit .333 and added two aces, two digs and two block assists for the winners, for whom Austin distributed 33 assists and notched three kills. His setting percentage was .516.

"Tillie's dynamic nature is generally inspired by our setter and I thought [Austin] did a nice job of making Tillie more dynamic," Kniffin said. "[Austin] sped some things up. And we moved [Tillie] around and set him in different situations, which allowed him to utilize his athleticism."

UCI used eight consecutive points to take a 16-9 lead on its way to claiming the opening set.

The 'Eaters led by two only twice before a kill by Connor Hughes put the hosts up, 22-19, in Game 2.

And UCI scored the first five points of Game 3, on its way to its 18th sweep this season.

Junior middle blocker Scott Kevorken had five kills, one solo block and three block assists, while sophomore libero Michael Brinkley chipped in a team-best eight digs.

As good as it was, Austin said UCI looks forward to adding more polish with a week of practice heading in the MSPF Tournament. The MPSF Tournament winner is guaranteed a spot in the four-team NCA A championship, May 2 & 4 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.

"I think we can continue to fine tune and still work some little kinks out," said Austin, who was an all-tournament performer at the NCAA championship last season. "But we're doing a lot of positive things at this point in the season. It's really important that we start a climb to peaking. We don't want to peak too early, but we want to start to climb the ladder from now up until the NCAA [Championships]."

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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