IRVINE — The UC Irvine men's volleyball team made the preliminary Final Four on Saturday, topping a revved-up UC Santa Barbara, 26-24, 22-25, 20-25, 25-19, 15-10, in the quarterfinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament at the Bren Events Center.
Junior opposite Zack La Cavera had a team-best 19 kills and hit .319 to help the No. 3-ranked Anteaters, the No. 2 seed in the MPSF Tournament, advance to Thursday's semifinals against No. 3-seeded Long Beach State at BYU. UCI has beaten the 49ers in all three previous meetings this season.
Senior All-American Kevin Tillie had 15 kills, 11 digs, two aces, one solo block and three block assists to help the hosts improve to 23-6 by earning their seventh triumph in nine five-set matches this season.
UCI came in having won 15 consecutive sets, and held off the Gauchos (15-16) in the opening game, before faltering slightly.
UCSB, which rode a No. 7 MPSF seed to the NCAA Tournament championship match in 2011, scrapped its way to within one game of an upset by winning Games 2 and 3.
But UCI, fortified by the belief that comes from winning three NCAA titles in the previous six seasons, stuck to the plan, even if it didn't stick with its starting lineup.
Junior outside hitter Jeremy Dejno, a first-team All-MPSF performer in 2012 who had lost his starting spot in recent weeks, came off the bench to hit .583 with seven kills, one solo block and three block assists. Two of those block assists came in the fifth set, in which UCI seized a 4-1 lead, then never let the Gauchos get closer than two.
Another spark off the bench came from junior middle blocker Collin Mehring, who stepped in for senior Ian Castellana to produce five kills and seven block assists. Mehring had three block assists and one kill in Game 5.
Tillie, who boomed serves all night, including a team-worst five service errors, still had a positive effect from the service line. In addition to his two aces, he forced UCSB to make spectacular "digs" on his dipping serves, many of which ticked or barely cleared the tape atop the net.
"There wasn't an outstanding performance by any one guy, even though [Dejno] did a nice job off the bench," UCI Coach David Kniffin said. "The key in the playoffs is composure and I think that was the key tonight. We maintained composure at the end."
UCI swept UCSB on the road (Jan. 30), won in four games at home (Feb. 14) and has now won the last seven meetings. But since Valentine's Day, the Gauchos' lineup included two new outside hitters and a new opposite, making a game plan problematic, Kniffin said.
"We had to figure out how to play this team in real time," Kniffin said. "We squeaked out Game 1, but I don't feel like we had [UCSB] figured out until Game 5."
Senior setter Chris Austin had 53 assists, two aces, three block assists and one solo block. His solo stuff gave UCI a 2-0 lead in the final set to help set the tone.
"I don't know if we got spooked," La Cavera said. "I think we just kind of started not letting [the Gauchos] take control of the match. I knew the whole time we were going to take control of the match. I just trust in our players, trust my coaching system and trust our plan. I wasn't too worried at all."
Junior middle Scott Kevorken had seven kills, hit .385 and added one solo block and three block assists for the defending NCAA champions.
UCI posted a 14-10 advantage in total blocks and hit .285, 72 points better than the Gauchos.
UCSB senior middle blocker Dylan Davis, a first-team all-conference performer out of Corona del Mar High, had six kills, one solo block and three block assists. He was held to an .056 hitting percentage.
Junior Evan Licht had 19 kills and senior Grant Goswiller added 15 for UCSB.
Top-seeded and top-ranked BYU rallied for a five-game win over Hawaii on Saturday and will play host to UCLA in the other semifinal on Thursday.
The MPSF Tournament champion earns an automatic berth in the four-team NCAA championship, to which a second MPSF school traditionally is granted an at-large berth.
Should BYU defeat UCLA on Thursday, UCI should have the inside track to at least an at-large berth, even if its loses in its semifinal. But should UCLA upset BYU, then earn the guaranteed berth with a win in the final, BYU would almost certainly claim the at-large berth, leaving UCI out of the picture.