Long Beach State men’s volleyball rallies past UCLA to reach national title match – Daily News

LOS ANGELES — Four years ago to the day, Long Beach State won a national championship by defeating UCLA on its home court in a five-set nailbiter.

Four years later, LBSU delivered another devastating postseason blow to its regional rival in five sets – on the same court at Pauley Pavilion. This time, it resulted in a berth in the national title match.

And it also came in comeback fashion.

After losing the first two sets (both by scores of 25-18), top-seeded Long Beach roared back to win the last three – 25-15, 25-10 and 16-14 – on Thursday night to advance to the title match, where it will attempt to win its third title in five years on Saturday against Big West Conference rival Hawaii (26-5), which rallied to defeat No. 2 seed Ball State, 28-26, 19-25, 20-25, 25-20, 15-11.

“They got pressure on us early, we got pressure on them late – and then it was just a race to 15,” LBSU coach Alan Knipe said.

The fifth set, unlike the first two, came down to the wire with neither team holding more than a two-point lead. With the score even at 14-14, star freshman outside hitter Alex Nikolov delivered a kill to set up match point, and then Simon Torwie’s ace sealed the win for Long Beach (21-5).

Nikolov, fresh off becoming the first freshman ever voted the National Player of the Year by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, paced Long Beach with 20 kills, six digs, three assists, two blocks and a .405 hitting percentage.

“In the fifth set, after a certain point – after seven or eight points – you have to go for it,” Nikolov said. “You have to rely on your training and hit the ball as hard as you can, get high and get points.”

UCLA (22-5) cruised to a first set win, outhitting LBSU .400 to .176 and never trailing after Long Beach recorded the first point. The second set, too, was all Bruins.

But something flipped for Long Beach in the third set. It reeled off four of the first five points and didn’t let up. The serves got more aggressive. The kills were sharper.

LBSU led by as many as 10 in the third set and closed it out with consecutive kills from Nikolov and Spencer Olivier. The fourth set consisted of much of the same.

Down 2-0 and staring at elimination, Knipe told his team to stop worrying about their position in the match, and just focus on being present for each point.

“We needed to be a little more freed up and unlocked, and trust what we do the whole time,” Knipe said to his team.

Olivier, who struggled early in the match but ended up with nine kills – including several crucial kills in the comeback – got the message.

“Right after the second set, we were like, ‘It’s do or die at this point,’” Olivier said. “We’ll have to outwork them. And the difference for me at least, was just raw emotion.”

The two programs met for the 98th time on Thursday in a series that dates to 1970, when UCLA swept Long Beach State to win the national title – which LBSU got revenge for 48 years later.

Before Thursday’s semifinal, UCLA coach John Speraw referred to Long Beach as a rival and pointed to the competition as a sign of the growth of men’s volleyball.

In 2018, when the two teams were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 and faced off against each other in a regular-season match at the Walter Pyramid, Speraw recalled his wife telling him that people were scalping tickets outside.

“When you’re scalping tickets in the parking lot of a men’s volleyball match, we’re going in the right direction,” Speraw said.

Despite being among the top teams in the country all season, both UCLA and Long Beach needed at-large bids to make it to the NCAA Tournament after failing to win their respective conference tournaments – though LBSU still managed to earn the top seed and one of the two byes into the semifinals.

UCLA defeated Pepperdine in four sets in a quarterfinal on Tuesday night. The Bruins had entered Thursday night a perfect 11-0 in semifinal matches at Pauley Pavilion.

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