So cool were the UC Irvine Anteaters, even when top-ranked and top-seeded Brigham Young had three set points and seemed poised to generate some momentum Saturday night in the NCAA men's volleyball championship match at Pauley Pavilion.
Even when BYU had a 24-21 lead in the third set, the Anteaters were smiling and patting one another on the back.
Maybe they knew something. By scoring the final five points of the match, UC Irvine beat the Cougars, 25-23, 25-22, 26-24, to become the first team since UCLA in 1996 to successfully defend an NCAA men's volleyball title.
The Anteaters (25-7) had lost to BYU (26-5) twice in the regular season, but UC Irvine dominated at the net and had scoring balance, with three players — Connor Hughes, Kevin Tillie and Zack La Cavera — each finishing with 11 kills. That made up for the game-high 20 kills from BYU's Taylor Sander.
This is UC Irvine's fourth volleyball title overall, and all have come since 2007. The Anteaters had to adjust to a new coach this season.
David Kniffin replaced John Speraw, who left for UCLA after leading UC Irvine to the title last season.
"We came into this year with this as our objective," Kniffin said. "No question this is where we wanted to be, and we felt like BYU would be the team that would be there."
The Anteaters had swept USC in last year's championship match, and by doing the same to BYU became the first team since UCLA, in 1982-83, to win in back-to-back sweeps.
BYU Coach Chris McGown said, "I thought UC Irvine played inspired volleyball. They executed. They served us well. They're big guys and they got in good position and executed. We weren't able to."
There were several times when BYU seemed poised to move ahead, especially when the Cougars had an 8-1 run in the second set and an 11-4 lead, and then again when they had the three set points up 24-21 in the third set.
Kniffin said it is no cliche what his team did in those tough situations.
"Very simply," he said, "we don't need to close the gap, to get to 24 points or something. We just need to score the next point, then deal with the issue of getting the next point after that. Our guys are confident in that, we play truly one point at a time."
Hughes, a junior outside hitter for the Anteaters, was named the tournament's most outstanding player. He said these back-to-back titles might not mean the Anteaters have created a dynasty. But, he added, "it helps to bump us up there, little steps by little steps."
It was Hughes who had a very big serve on UC Irvine's match point. It felt as if the Anteaters had taken a very big step into the history book.