Anteaters Pound Penn State
UCI 3, PSU 1
Following two straight heroic five-set comebacks against USC and Stanford respectively in the MPSF Tournament, No. 1 UCI fell behind once again on May 3, this time against the No. 3 Penn State Nittany Lions in the NCAA Tournament semifinal at the Galen Center.
Irvine came out jittery in the first set, falling 25-18. UCI committed seven errors in the opening frame, one more than they would commit in the rest of the three sets combined. In front of 2,750 fans, the Anteaters crawled out to a 6-3 lead to start the match, but the tables turned when the boys from Penn State took six of the next seven points to make it a 9-7 PSU advantage.
Speraw’s team, which ranked first in the NCAA in hitting throughout the season, never regained the first-set lead, hitting a meager .100 to start the match. Penn State held Clark, who leads the Anteaters with 392 kills, to zero kills in the first set.
That was about all the fun junior All-American Kevin Tillie and company would allow the Nittany Lions, as the ’Eaters reversed the scoreboard, winning a 25-18 set of their own in the second frame.
“[After] the start of the second we were ready to go,” Tillie said. “We got fired up and played our game a little more.”
Senior Carson Clark began the set serving and fired off two aces en route to a quick 6-2 lead. Irvine wouldn’t squander another lead, forcing three Penn State turnovers in a row and extending the margin to six at 11-5. Sophomore outside hitter Connor Hughes got vertical, drilling five of his 10 kills on the evening in the second set. The last of Hughes’ five kills was set by junior Chris Austin, putting the set to sleep.
The third set was controlled by the Anteaters once again. Irvine went up two sets to one with a 25-15 advantage in the third. Up 17-10, UCI’s Clark, Tillie, and senior middle blocker Dan McDonnell rallied off three consecutive kills, taking a commanding 20-10 lead. After hitting .100 in the first set, the Anteaters improved to .375 in the second and a commanding .552 in the third, compiling 33 kills and just five errors in that span.
Out-passed and out-served at the onset, the Anteaters tidied their execution up for their third straight set, clinching a spot in the NCAA Division I National Championship game with a 25-19 fourth set victory. Irvine came back down from cloud nine in the third set to hit .391, winning a streaky fourth set by a six-point margin. Up 19-18, the Anteaters went on a 6-1 run to close out the Nittany Lions’ season.
Punctuating the victory was Tillie, who led the way with 21 of UCI’s 53 kills on the evening. The Frenchman drilled one off of the outstretched arms of a PSU middle blocker and into the blue paint that surrounded the playing surface. Out of bounds the ball fell as the Anteaters celebrated their third National Championship appearance in six seasons.