Third-ranked UC Irvine won a very close match Saturday night by winning the first and the final two sets to defeat seventh-ranked UC Santa Barbara 3-2 in a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation quarterfinal match at the Bren Events Center.
With the win, the No. 2 seeded Anteaters improve to 23-6 overall and extend their win streak to six in a row. The seventh seed Gauchos are eliminated from the playoffs and end the season at 15-16 overall.
UCI will advance to the MPSF semifinals that will be taking place on Thursday, April 25 in the Smith Fieldhouse at BYU, and will face No. 2 Long Beach State, who enters the matchup as the third seed. The match will be played at 4 p.m. PST.
Saturday night, sophomore opposite Zack La Cavera had a career-high 19 kills while adding six digs and two block assists. Senior All-American Kevin Tillie totaled 15 kills, seven digs, two blocks and two aces. Setter Chris Austin had a season-high 53 set assists and 11 digs while libero Michael Brinkley had a match-high 12 digs. Outside hitter Jeremy Dejno and middle blocker Scott Kevorken each recorded seven kills.
When asked about his career-high kills, La Cavera said, “I just felt like I was playing a lot looser. There were times where I was a little tight and timid out there, but I just tried to let that go and go play point-to-point, and trust in my setter and the rest of the guys on my team.”
UCI started the game with an early 6-2 lead in the first set before UCSB tied the score at 13-13. A series of events, led by Kevorken’s kill, Austin’s ace and La Cavera’s kill, would give the Anteaters the lead again at 16-13, but the Gauchos would answer by scoring the next three straight points to tie the game up again at 16-16. Both teams would continue to trade points, reaching another standstill at 24-24. UCI would score the final two points on another kill by La Cavera and an ace by Austin to end the first set 26-24.
In the second set, UCSB took control and led 12-9. UCI would then score the next three on a UCSB attacking error and kills from La Cavera and Tillie to even the score at 12-12. However, the Gauchos would strike back and take the lead at 17-13 with kills by Evan Licht and Jake Stahl. Irvine finally regained the lead at 21-20, but lost it again when Santa Barbara scored four of the last six points to take the set 25-22.
The Gauchos took total control in the third set. Irvine was unable to score and had trouble snatching the lead from UCSB. The Anteaters at this point were losing momentum and struggled to get the ball over the net. UCSB took advantage and won the set 25-20, bringing the Gauchos a set closer to advancing to the semifinals.
“After that third game where we lost again, we just sat there on the bench and realized that they weren’t winning the game, but it was that we were losing it ourselves. It was completely on us that we lost those second and third games. We just realized that we’ve just got to be able to take control on our side and they can’t do anything about it once we start getting control,” La Cavera said.
And the Anteaters were able to do just that in the fourth set: take control. Irvine started the set with a 6-3 lead and never gave Santa Barbara a chance to catch up. UCI would continue to dominate, and eventually won the fourth set 25-19.
The fifth set was no different, as UCI carried the momentum into the final set and continued to control the game. Irvine did not give UCSB any room to breathe, as the Anteaters finished the set 15-10 and ended a close match 3-2. Blocking late in the match was key, as Irvine out-blocked Santa Barbara 14-10.
“Composure was the key, and we maintained it until the very end,” Coach David Kniffin said.