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HomeSportsUCI MVB falls to UCLA in Five Set Thriller at NCAA Semifinals

UCI MVB falls to UCLA in Five Set Thriller at NCAA Semifinals

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The UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team (20-11, 7-3) fell to the UCLA Bruins (25-5, 11-1) 3-2 in a five-set thriller in the semifinals of the 2024 Men’s National Collegiate Volleyball Championship. The game took place on Thursday, May 2, at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach, CA. 

The Anteaters were led with 22 kills by junior opposite hitter and recently named AVCA National Player of the Year Hilir Henno.

A huge block for Henno gave the ‘Eaters the first point of the match. Both teams went back-and-forth until three points in a row from the Anteaters gave them a 5-2 advantage after a kill by Henno, assisted by graduate setter Brett Sheward. 

UCLA answered, scoring the next two points, yet the Anteaters scored three of the next four after a kill from junior outside hitter Nolan Flexen put them ahead 8-5. A thunderous kill from sophomore middle blocker Maxim Grigoriev, followed in succession by a slicing kill from Henno, gave UCI a 10-6 advantage.

Sheward set up Grigoriev with another kill to put UCI up 12-9. After a UCI service error, a block from UCLA junior opposite Ido David inched UCLA closer, 12-11. An ace from Henno gave the ‘Eaters some cushion with a 15-12 lead, then Henno finished off the ensuing play with another kill, giving them a 16-12 advantage and forcing another UCLA timeout.

A kill by Flexen capped off a 4-0 scoring run for UCI, 17-12. A service error from the Bruins matched UCI’s largest lead of the night at 18-13. A slicing kill from Henno off the hand of a UCLA defender gave UCI a 20-16 lead. 

Another service error from Grigoriev and a kill from UCLA redshirt junior middle blocker Guy Genis put UCLA closer, 21-19. A kill from Flexen deflected off a UCLA player out of bounds, putting UCI up 23-20. Another kill from Flexen and a UCLA service error gave UCI the first set victory, 25-22.

However, early in the first set UCI lost one of their key starters, graduate outside hitter Akhil Tangutur, due to a knee injury. After the game, UCI head coach David Kniffin talked about Akhil’s importance to the team and how proud he was of the guys for battling without him out there.

“Akhil is just a good all around volleyball player and so steady,” Kniffin said in the postgame press conference. “Akhil was really a glue guy for us so we thought we’d try to navigate it with a similar style of play from a freshman who hasn’t really gotten that much opportunity. At some point, there was a physicality element to the game and we needed a little more size so we rolled out a new lineup.”

Starting in the second set, UCI went size heavy bringing in senior middle blocker Connor Campbell up front to match the size with Henno in the frontcourt.

A kill and a block from Henno put UC Irvine out front early in the second set, 2-0. Back-to-back kills from UCLA senior outside hitter Ethan Champlin evened up the score. A crosscourt kill from Henno and a UCI service error gave the Bruins back the lead, 5-4. An attacking error from Flexen and a service error from Henno gave UCLA a 7-5 cushion. 

An attacking error by Champlin and back-to-back kills from Grigoriev evened the score at 15-15, forcing a UCLA timeout. A service error from Flexen and a block from UCLA redshirt senior middle blocker Merrick McHenry gave the Bruins the momentum back, 17-15. 

A kill by Champlin and an attacking error from UCI sophomore opposite William D’Arcy gave UCLA a 20-17 lead. A kill from D’Arcy and back-to-back service errors for both teams put UCLA ahead 21-19. Another UCI service error and a kill from UCLA redshirt sophomore outside hitter Cooper Robinson put UCLA ahead 23-19, drawing an Anteater timeout.

A kill from David and an attacking error from Flexen gave UCLA the second set, 25-20, tying up the contest at 1-1. 

Set three began with several back-and-forths between both teams, but the ball went rolling after back-to-back crosscourt kills from Henno tied it at 8-8, and a UCLA defensive error gave UCI their first lead of the set, 9-8. However, back-to-back kills from Champlin gave UCLA back the lead. Huge kills from Henno and Flexen gave UCI back the lead, 13-12. 

Many exchanges later, consecutive Anteater errors gave the Bruins a 21-15 lead, and the hole was just too much to overcome for the Anteaters as they dropped the set, 25-16, falling into a 2-1 hole. 

“I think that they’re gonna respond to whatever you throw at them,” Flexen said in the postgame press conference when asked about the team morale after dropping sets two and three. “We gotta be ready to compete and I thought our team did a great job responding.”

Back-to-back kills by Robinson gave UCLA a 2-0 lead early in the fourth set. However, kills by Henno and Grigoriev tied the contest at 2-2. A service ace by Grigoriev put the ‘Eaters up 4-3. A UCLA service error and an ace from D’Arcy put UCI up 6-4, however, an error from D’Arcy and an ace from Robinson tied it up again, 6-6. 

A kill from Henno and a block from Grigoriev put UCI ahead 10-8. Another kill from Henno put UCI back ahead 11-9 after a service error. Huge kills from Grigoriev and Flexen made it 13-10, causing a UCLA timeout. 

Following the timeout a Grigoriev ace, a Flexen kill and an ace from D’Arcy put the ‘Eaters up 16-11. A thunderous block from Campbell put UCI up 17-11, leading to another UCLA timeout.

A UCLA service error, a block from Grigoriev and a UCLA attacking error gave UCI a 23-16 lead. A service error from Champlin and an attacking error from UCLA gave UCI a 25-18 victory, sending both teams into a fifth and final set.

Both teams went head-to-head, with neither team gaining an edge until a kill from Champlin and an attacking error from Henno capped off a 3-0 UCLA spurt, putting them ahead 8-6 by the final media timeout.

The score was on a razor’s edge, but a kill from Genis was answered with a kill from Henno, 10-9 UCI. However, a kill from UCLA sophomore outside hitter Zach Rama and an attack error from Flexen put UCLA back up 11-10. A kill by Flexen and a service error from redshirt junior opposite hitter Conner Dahm put UCLA back up 12-11. Another kill by Flexen went out of play, putting UCLA up 13-11 and forcing a UCI timeout.

A kill by Henno made it 13-12, yet a kill from McHenry and Champlin gave UCLA the win, 15-12.

After the game, UCI head coach David Kniffin commented on his team’s resilience and ability to compete so well at the highest stage.

“It’s really hard to get into the final four,” Kniffin said in the postgame press conference. “There’s just so many good teams. There’s so much more parity now. There’s so many more kids playing. So it’s harder to get here now than it was 10 years ago or in 2018. I think it’s a nice nod to be here.” 

Kniffin also spoke about his Player of the Year, Henno, and the impact he’s had on this team. 

“He’s just a great volleyball player,” Kniffin said. “He’s a master craftsman, and he’s pretty humble about it. To watch how much he’s grown in the last couple of years, I love his game.”

“He’s the greatest player I’ve ever played with,” Flexon said in the postgame press conference when asked about Henno’s impact on the team. “I’ve had the honor of learning from him, and I’ve learned so much from this incredible teammate on and off the court.”

James Huston is a Sports Co-Editor. He can be reached at hustonj@uci.edu

Edited by Phillip Lemus, Jaheem Conley, and Laiyla Santillan