LOS ANGELES — They say defense wins championships. That's certainly how UC Irvine captured its second-consecutive national title Saturday night at Pauley Pavillion.
The Anteaters put on a clinic at the net with 17 blocks en route to a straight-sets victory over BYU (25-23, 25-22, 26-24). They had an answer, it seemed, to every conceivable attack the high-powered Cougar offense threw at them.
Middle blocker Scott Kevorken led the defensive effort for UCI with a game-high 11 blocks. Connor Hughes, Kevin Tillie and Zack La Cavera each added 11 kills apiece to lead the Anteaters in offensive stats.
BYU was led by Taylor Sander, who provided a game-high 20 kills, but he was snuffed during the most critical moments of the match — along with the rest of his teammates.
“(UC Irvine) just executed,” said BYU coach Chris McGown. “We passed the ball well, but they have big guys and they got into good positions defensively. They executed and we weren’t able to. We’ve been executing in these key moments all season long, but when we needed to, we just couldn’t find a point.”
UC Irvine closed strong in each set strong after falling behind, but saved its best for last — scoring the final five points of the third and final set to win the championship.
Three straight blocks by the Anteaters ended the match with Kevorken assisting on all three of them, including throwing back Sander‘s last kill attempt, to give his team the championship.
“I thought our middle blockers were incredibly patient and disciplined tonight — more than they have been all season,” said UC Irvine coach Dave Kniffin. “You don’t get to see what UC Irvine athletes can do until they get to this stage.”
Kniffin cited familiarity with what BYU does offensively as a big key for his team’s defensive success. After two regular-season losses, the Anteaters were able to figure out and execute against BYU’s attack when it mattered most.
“There’s something about actually seeing someone across the net — we can actually learn how they play,” Kniffin explained. “When they get out there and they are able to adapt during a match, that’s when you see our blocking numbers go up.”
BYU held late leads in all three sets and seemed poised to take Irvine deep into the first set before a controversial call gave the set to the Anteaters, 25-23.
A kill by UCI’s Kyle Russell sailed out of bounds, but was ruled touched by a BYU defender by the chair official. Despite massive protests from both BYU players and coaches, the chair referee upheld his controversial call.
“I had a good look and I didn’t see it,” McGown said. “It was a tough way to end the set.”
Another controversial call on an illegal rotation in the second set starting things off poorly for the Cougars, but they came back to take a commanding 11-4 lead. From that point, however, UCI went on an improbable 9-2 run to take a 14-13 lead before ultimately taking the set 25-22.
“That was a real turning point for us,” said UCI’s Connor Hughes. “We really came together and that really gave us a lot of momentum heading into the final set. I’m so proud of how we came together and played our best volleyball when it mattered most.”
For BYU, it was a stinging end to a season where everything seemed to go right. Despite the disappointment, players and coaches expressed optimism for the future and satisfaction on how they competed throughout the year.
“It’s so hard to get this far into the season and not come out with the win,” Sander said. “But I wouldn’t trade any of these guys on the team for any of (Irvine’s) guys. We’ve had such a great season. I’m so proud of my guys, my team and my program. (Irvine) just showed up tonight, and we were caught off guard. Hats off to them: They played a wonderful match.”
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