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Penn State can't keep UCI down

Men's Volleyball

Anteaters, behind Tillie's 21 kills, rally from opening-set loss to move into NCAA final Saturday against USC.

May 03, 2012|By Barry Faulkner
(Scott Smeltzer…)

LOS ANGELES — In this, the men's volleyball version of the Big Dance, UC Irvine did the equivalent of leaning against the wall, before getting fully into its groove.

For the third straight match, No. 1-seeded UCI fell behind early, allowing No. 4-seeded Penn State to boogie its way to a one-set lead.

But, just like the final two Mountain Pacific Tournament matches, when the Anteaters rallied to win in five games after losing the first two sets, they found their rhythm in time to advance in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship Thursday at USC's Galen Center.

It turns out, all UCI needed to quell a little star-struck anxiety was a quick dose of defeat, as it claimed an 18-25, 25-18, 25-15, 25-19 triumph that moved the 'Eaters one victory away from the program's third national title in six seasons.

UCI (25-5) will face host USC (24-5) in Saturday's championship match at 7 p.m. USC beat Lewis, 25-18, 25-12, 18-25, 27-25.

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It's UCI's fourth meeting this season with the No. 2-seeded Trojans, ranked No. 1 in the last NCAA poll, one spot ahead of the Anteaters. UCI got the best of the MPSF regular-season champions twice, including a five-game decision in the MPSF Tournament final on Saturday. They split their two regular-season meetings, with UCI winning in four games at home on Jan. 27, then losing in four games at USC on April 7.

But the Anteaters, who are now 2-1 against the Nittany Lions in NCAA semifinal contests, improved to 9-1 in four-game matches this season, behind a match-high 21 kills from junior All-American outside hitter Kevin Tillie.

Tillie, who appeared to be in control of his nerves with seven first-game kills, added seven in a dominant third-game on his way to hitting .500 for the match.

"He was unstoppable at times," Penn State All-American Joe Sunder said of Tillie, a 6-foot-6 native of France who played his first two collegiate seasons in Canada.

UCI Coach John Speraw said nerves had as much to do with Penn State's successful start as anything strategic.

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