However, it was no short order. The Anteaters were challenged on separate occasions throughout the match and had the opportunity to sweep the lowly Bruins in the third set, but could not pull out an inspirational comeback from an eight-point deficit.
But that set came after an incredible display of determination in the second set. With the score switching back and forth between who had the lead, it became a barn burner at the end.
With Irvine up by just one point, 27-26, UCLA’s top player, Garret Muagututia, slammed in one of his 17 kills to tie it up. UC Irvine then followed that point with a net violation that put the score at 28-27, in favor of the Bruins.
But at just the right moment, the Anteaters decided this was their set to win.
Carson Clark fired in a kill that tied the score back up at 28-28. Then it was the best Irvine hitter of the night, Taylor Wilson, who nailed in a huge kill to put Irvine back in the lead at 29-28.
The biggest problem for Irvine in the entire match was big number seven on the Bruin side, Muagututia, who came in and smacked a kill to tie the set at 29-29.
But the Anteaters were not about to let this set go, and Wilson took it upon himself to make that happen.
With the entire crowd on its feet, Wilson timed a Ryan Ammerman set with perfection and knocked in the next two points to end a ferocious second set to the roar of a huge Anteater crowd on Blackout night.
“Before the match I was getting really nervous, and I knew that was good because I play really well when I get nervous,” Wilson said. “I got really fired up at every point because it brought the momentum to the next level and I just tried to be the emotional leader.”
However, after such an amazing start with Irvine going up in the match 2-0, the third set proved to be a moment of concern for the Anteaters.
The Bruins opened the set with an 8-1 lead and were not stopping. At one point, the Anteaters trailed 24-20 and the set appeared to be in the hands of the Bruins. But like a team bound for championship glory, UCI fought hard against a sizable UCLA offense and brought the set back 26-29.
At that point, the second set seemed as if the momentum had shifted completely on the side of the Anteaters.
After a busted pass sent the ball to the back left corner of the court, senior libero Brent Azuka sent a cross-court set to a charging Wilson who put another big point away for the Anteaters, making it 28-27 in favor of the Anteaters.
Wilson then followed with yet another big kill to tie the match at 28, but the Bruins were the better of the two as the set went into extra points and the Bruins pulled out the 32-30 victory, sending the match into the fourth set with Irvine up 2-1.
At this point, any hesitancy the Anteaters had in the previous set to close out this first-round match was gone. Irvine stormed out to a 19-9 lead and never looked back. Riding the crowd’s enthusiasm, the Anteaters closed out the Bruins in that final set with a hefty win, 30-21.
“Growing up, UCLA volleyball was always number one, and to beat them tonight was really fun. They came in arrogant and talking a little trash and we just stuck with our [style] and pulled out a really big win,” said outside hitter Jordan DuFault. “I loved seeing some of the other sports come out tonight to support us because we really got hyped off the crowd and to see the different sports here [with] us was great.”
This win puts the Anteaters into the semifinal match at the Bren on Thursday night.
It also puts them in a position that almost guarantees at least an at-large bid to the National Collegiate Athletic Associations Final Four on May 7.
But more importantly, this win sends a message that Irvine is not falling from its peak position that it finished with at the end of the regular season.
“We did not play our best volleyball and to still win a playoff match is huge for us,” said Coach John Speraw. “I really liked how we were able to grind from being down 8-1 and almost win. That was the momentum that carried us into a game four win.”
Wilson finished the match with a career-high 29 kills and Clark finished behind him with 16 as DuFault rounded it out with 16 kills. Ammerman put in another big night with 61 assists, three service aces, nine digs and three blocks.
The Anteaters move to the semi-final match on Thursday at the Bren Events Center.
The Anteaters will be facing the University of Southern California whom they have previously beaten twice in the regular season.
The Anteaters swept the Trojans in the match-up between the two powerhouses and Irvine has no intention of stopping that trend from continuing in the semifinal of the conference tournament.
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