Sports

Long Beach State men’s volleyball will defend its title against Hawaii

Fittingly, it was an ace by senior TJ DeFalco that did it. A hard shot to the center of the court that the Pepperdine men’s volleyball team could not return. The crowd erupted. Long Beach State’s players rushed to their star and enveloped him in a huddle, leaping in unison.

Long Beach State is returning to the national championship match.

In the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, Long Beach defeated Pepperdine in four games, 25-21, 21-25, 25-16, 25-15 Thursday night, in a match full of plays that brought the pro-49ers crowd to its feet at Walter Pyramid.

DeFalco led with 17 kills, the only player on his team in double digits.

“What I saw tonight is what we’ve been seeing for the better part of four years,” coach Alan Knipe said of DeFalco. “TJ’s the straw that stirs the drink for us, always has been that way.”

The team will face top-seeded Hawaii, which defeated Lewis University in a semifinal match, 25-17, 25-16, 30-32, 25-16.

Thursday was the first time this season No. 2-seed Long Beach faced No. 3 Pepperdine. And the Waves were formidable foes early on.

The first game started as a back-and-forth battle, with Pepperdine taking a 15-14 lead at one point, forcing Long Beach to call a timeout.

The break sparked a 6-1 run by Long Beach, helping the team cruise to a first-set victory, capped with a kill by DeFalco.

Long Beach took control of the match with its serve. DeFalco crushed two aces, senior Kyle Ensing six. Several other players slammed serves so powerful, Pepperdine players fell to the ground as they returned them.

“Our servers were going after it,” redshirt senior Nick Amado said, “and just whipping the ball with confidence.”

It was an ace by sophomore Carlos Rivera that tied the second game at 17, after Pepperdine claimed an early lead behind three kills by Kevin Vaz, who earned seven by the end of the match. The Waves remained ahead until a kill by DeFalco on the next point.

But as the game wore on Pepperdine reclaimed the lead, and Long Beach’s frustration showed with every Waves kill as momentum shifted again.

Until that moment in the match, Long Beach’s players were strikingly composed. They erupted after successful plays but were unfazed by errors.

At one point in the second set, Josh Tuaniga took a Pepperdine spike to the face and hardly winced. He shrugged it off when his teammates checked on him.

But the late frustration only fueled Long Beach to start the third set with a 4-0 run.

When Pepperdine tied the game at 13, Long Beach made a 4-1 run. The players ramped up their communication before points.

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“We just decided to start playing our game,” Amado said.

It worked. There were saves that stretched out the points to set up dominant plays, kills and aces that left the fans roaring as Long Beach claimed a third-game win.

By the final game, Long Beach had the momentum.

The final game was Long Beach’s most convincing win. When the match ended and they shook hands with the crowd, the 49ers clapped in sync with the crowd to a standing ovation.

Now the team has a chance to defend its title, with a starting lineup of almost all seniors competing one final time at home.

The significance of the moment, the prospect of victory, had not entered DeFalco’s mind.

“The only thing we’re worried about is our next match, and that we get to play in that match,” he said. “I’m really excited.”

blake.richardson@latimes.com

@rblakerich_