Provo » For the 26th time in 40 finals, the NCAA Men's Volleyball Championship will be an all-California affair. However, just who will have the advantage Saturday when underdog USC meets No. 1 ranked UC Irvine for the title?
The two teams have already played each other three times this season. The third-seeded Trojans' only victory against the top-seeded Anteaters came at the right time, in Irvine during the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament.
So, will suddenly peaking USC have the upper hand or will UCI? The final chapter will be written starting 5 p.m. in the Smith Fieldhouse.
"We lost to 'SC and that sucks," said Irvine freshman Carson Clark, who had 12 kills. "It'll be a grinding match, but that's what we're all about. I can't be happier with our opponent."
Surprisingly, neither team was severely tested during Thursday's semifinals. As expected, Irvine (26-5) defeated Ohio State (16-11) in a workmanlike 30-25, 30-25, 30-26.
Irvine coach John Speraw felt USC had the tougher match and called his team the underdog.
"It'll be fun trying to figure out how to stop them," he said.
As for USC, it had to beat the likes of Stanford, Pepperdine and Irvine, all higher ranked teams, just to get to Provo.
"All that was left was the defending national champion," USC coach Bill Ferguson said.
The Trojans, as they have for much of their late-season run just to get into the national semifinal, again started from behind. The match, however, finished the way of all the others.
In the end, USC celebrated a four-game upset victory against the defending champions Penn State, 27-30, 30-26, 30-26 and 30-24.
The Nittany Lions had few answers for a scrappy group of Trojans who won nearly every long rally and frustrated PSU (27-4) at every turn.
"Part of us felt surprised," said PSU All-America middle Max Holt, who finished with 13 kills. " 'Wow, we're losing this.' We didn't know how to react."
The match was a defensive coach's nightmare as each school hit better than .400. However, USC (21-10) had a kill rate of nearly .500.
"We couldn't block an intersection with a car," lamented Penn State coach Mark Pavlik.
Penn State began the match dominating the net. However, USC willed itself back in the match, diffusing Penn State's block midway through the second game.
The Trojans finally registered its first block of the match midway through the second game in taking a 16-14 lead. From that point the USC maintained a slight but definite advantage the rest of the way.
The turning point came in the third game. Penn State, in trying to re-establish itself, nearly came back from a seven point gap. PSU made a run to within 27-26. Joe Sunder's kill, however, was the last PSU gasp as the Trojans recorded the next three points in a long rally that saw USC stymy each Lion effort.
"That was definitely huge," Holt said. "We had so many chances to convert and couldn't put the ball away. We'd like to have had that one."
Murphy Troy has 24 kills as USC hits .484 in upsetting defending champion Penn State.
» UC Irvine holds Ohio State to .247 hitting percentage in a three-game sweep.