Men's Volleyball: 'Eaters repeat

LOS ANGELES β€” Thundering chants of U-C-I and B-Y-U perhaps might have faded under a more resonant echoes of Dy-Nas-Ty Saturday night as the UC Irvine men's volleyball team earned its second straight NCAA championship and its fourth in seven seasons.

The No. 2-seeded Anteaters (25-7), who had lost their first two meetings to the top-seeded Cougars (26-5) this season, exploded for a 25-23, 25-22, 26-24 victory in the title match in front of 6,295 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, as well as a national television audience on ESPNU.

The victory cements UCI's status as the preeminent program in the land, a thought almost laughable more than a decade ago, when the program became fully funded for the first time in terms of allowable scholarships.

Senior All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie, junior Final Four MVP Connor Hughes, and sophomore opposite Zack La Cavera had 11 kills each to lead the Anteaters, who posted a .383 attack percentage, 109 points better than BYU.

Tillie joined Hughes and senior setter Chris Austin (43 assists) on the all-tournament team for the second straight year, while sophomore All-American libero Michael Brinkley (eight digs Saturday) and sophomore All-American middle blocker Collin Mehring (seven kills with a ,600 percentage and two block assists) were also all-tournament choices.

And while Hughes, chosen to start for the first time in seven matches , earned the top individual honor, junior middle blocker Scott Kevorken (six of his seven kills in the final two sets and six of his 11 block assists in the final set) may have come up biggest of all when the Anteaters needed him most.

UCI rallied from an 11-4 deficit in Game 2 and overcame a 24-21 margin to score the final five points in Game 3 to clinch their 14th sweep of the season.

UCI, which becomes the first team to win back-to-back NCAA titles since UCLA in 1995-96, is also the first team to put together consecutive title-match sweeps since UCLA managed it in 1982-83.

"This whole season has been planned around figuring out a way to beat BYU and I'm really proud of all the guys for capitalizing and executing what I think was a great collective game plan by our staff," UCI first-year head coach David Kniffin said. "We were able to find a couple chinks in the armor tonight. There's not many with a team like BYU and we are able to exploit that."

Kniffin spread the credit around, but agreed that Hughes' play, perhaps more than it was all season, was key to the victory. He also said Austin set his best match all season and credited the patience and discipline of both middle blockers.

"We wanted to see what Connor had and Connor has been great in big moments," Kniffin said of his decision to start the Costa Mesa resident. "There is something about his confidence and poise. And, based on the matchups that I thought we had tonight, I thought it was appropriate to have Connor on the court."

Said Hughes: "I'm just so excited. In these types of moments throughout my whole career, I just really try to be in the moment."

UCI limited BYU freshman All-American opposite Ben Patch to seven kills and a .901 hitting percentage. Patch had a school-record 35 kills in a five-set win at UCI on March 1.

BYU junior All-American outside hitter Taylor Sander had 20 kills and hit .308 to lead the Cougars, who lost for the first time in seven matches and only the second time in the last 20.

"It's so hard to get this far into the season and not come out with the win," Sander said. "[The Anteaters] just showed up tonight and we were caught off guard. Hats off to them; they played a wonderful match."

UCI, which is now 25-0 in matches in which it has a better hitting percentage than its opponent, posted a 17-6 lead in total blocks and a 3-2 edge in aces.

"I was surprised that they blocked 17 balls," BYU Coach Chris McGown said. "That's unreal. "We never really found our momentum, defensively or offensively and they ran a nice offense that was well-distributed."

Kniffin was noncommittal when asked what this meant in terms of discussion of a dynasty.

"Gosh, I'm a rookie at this, so I don't know what it means for the university," Kniffin said. "[Former chancellor Ralph] Cicerone used to talk about UCI as this sleeping giant, and this hidden gem in Orange County. But we are a very special institution that still flies under the radar in every facet; athletics and academics. And so for us to be a piece of maybe bringing a little notoriety to the school is exciting for me. I don't know if we've elevated us to any status. I think all we're doing is making people aware of the status UC Irvine has already had."

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