UC Irvine 3
After a thrilling five-game match against Long Beach State that saw the No. 2-ranked UC Irvine men’s volleyball team extend its winning streak to seven games, the Anteaters returned home for a key conference match-up against the No. 5-ranked UCLA Bruins. There to greet the team was a school-record crowd of 3,612 fans that had the Bren Events Center rocking as they watched the Anteaters completely own the visiting Bruins, winning in three games 30-26, 30-28 and 30-21.
The atmosphere in the arena was electric for this highly anticipated match. Wanting to come out quickly and feed off of the crowd’s energy, UCI jumped out to an early 9-4 lead thanks to some superb offensive play and some errors from the Bruins side.
Senior middle blocker David Smith got the scoring going with a solo block, followed by two quick kills from fellow middle blocker junior Aaron Harrell. After a dig by senior opposite Matt Webber that almost reached the scoreboard hanging over the court, senior setter and co-captain Brian Thorton made a picture perfect pass to Smith, who sent a rocket right down the middle of the Bruin defense, bringing the crowd to its feet and forcing UCLA to call a time out to try and stop the bleeding.
There would be no stopping the Anteaters in game one, though, as the Bruins were only able to draw as close as three points the rest of the way, falling 30-26 when Harrell finished off the game with a kill.
‘Coming in we knew we were going to be playing a strong team,’ said Head Coach John Speraw. ‘We came out really ready to go and just took it to UCLA right from the beginning.’
Game two proved to be a much closer match. The Bruins did not let UCI go on any type of run to build a lead. As the teams traded points back and forth, it was the stellar play of sophomore libero Brent Asuka that seemed to be keeping the Anteaters in the game. If he wasn’t makings digs, Asuka was scrambling across the court to make diving saves or keeping plays alive by jumping up onto press row. Inspired by their teammate’s efforts, the Anteaters maintained control of the game, mostly because of the play of Webber.
After recording seven kills in the first game alone, Webber continued his onslaught of the Bruin defense, at times not even attempting to find an opening but rather swinging with all his might and daring a UCLA defender to attempt to dig his spike. Tallying seven more kills in game two, Webber provided all of the offensive fire power the Anteaters needed, leading them to a 30-28 game-two victory.
Game three was a let down in comparison to the first two. Both teams played very sloppy volleyball and had numerous unforced errors. The lone bright spot for UCI in the game was the overall team blocking, which totaled 10 block assists in the third game alone. Sophomore opposite Jon Steller recorded an ace to win the game 30-21, giving Irvine the 3-0 sweep over the Bruins.
‘That was definitely not one of UCLA’s best games, which is very uncharacteristic of them,’ Speraw said, commenting on the play of the visiting Bruins. ‘That being said, I felt like we played well, came out strong and were just able to keep the momentum going in our favor.’
The night would prove to be Webber’s as the senior recorded 16 kills to go with eight digs and three blocks. Senior outside hitter and co-captain Jayson Jablonsky added seven kills, seven digs and five blocks. Harrell and Smith had four and eight kills, respectfully, while Harrell recorded a match-high seven blocks. Thornton totaled 33 set assists and six digs.
UCI will look to continue its winning streak when it takes on the Penn State Nittany Lions on March 14 at Crawford Court at 7 p.m. The Anteaters will be looking for revenge as the Nittany Lions beat UCI in the NCAA semifinals last year in a thrilling five set game at Penn State.
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