Men's Sports, Sports

Men’s volleyball avoids sweep from UCLA, advances to championship

WESTWOOD – After a two-year absence and nearly getting swept by UCLA in the Final Four game Thursday night, Long Beach State men’s volleyball is back in the NCAA Championship Final.

In a rematch of the 2018 finals, The Beach pulled off an improbable reverse sweep [18-25, 18-25, 25-15, 25-10, 16-14], beating the Bruins in their home at Pauley Pavilion. The comeback thrilled hundreds of pro-Beach faithful, many of whom were bused in by the school for the late afternoon contest.

Mason Briggs celebrating after The Beach scored a point
Mason Briggs celebrating after The Beach scored a point. Photo credit: Renzo Pocasangre

“I have to give my crew a ton of credit for their grit,” said head coach Alan Knipe. “Being down 0-2, that was one heck of a response against a really good team playing really well. I’m proud of them, we’ll get some rest and get something to eat and get prepped to play for a title.”

It will be Knipe and the team’s third appearance at the finals in four seasons. The Beach will face the winner of Thursday night’s game between Ball State and Hawaii on Saturday at 5 p.m in the Pauley Pavilion.

Freshman outside hitter and AVCA National Player of the Year Alex Nikolov led the game with 20 kills and added six digs. Substitute sophomore opposite Simon Torwie’s four aces helped turn things around for The Beach.

Freshman outside hitter Alex Nikolov going for the kill. Nikolov would lead the game with 20 kills.
Freshman outside hitter Alex Nikolov going for the kill. Nikolov would lead the game with 20 kills. Photo credit: Renzo Pocasangre

Starting with an abysmal .176 hitting percentage and just five assists from sophomore setter Aiden Knipe in set one, Knipe turned to Torwie and sophomore opposite Nathan Harlan in set three for some much-needed energy that guided LBSU to a 10-4 lead in sets three and four.

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

Calvin Sanborn getting ready to serve the ball
Calvin Sanborn getting ready to serve the ball. Photo credit: Renzo Pocasangre

In a back-and-forth final fifth set, UCLA managed to get its groove back and make things competitive until the final point. The Bruins had a 13-12 lead before two kills from Nikolov and a UCLA serving error sealed the win for The Beach.

After a difficult start which saw him substituted for Harlan in set two, Olivier’s seven kills in sets four and five came at the right time for The Beach.

“This is what every athlete trains for,” Nikolov said. “I love it. I’ve had my fair share of experiences with big crowds, but this one tonight was special because it was my first semifinal in the Final Four.”

Long Beach scores a point after a serving error by UCLA
Long Beach scores a point after a serving error by UCLA Photo. credit: Renzo Pocasangre

Postgame, Bruins head coach John Speraw said he thought his team’s inability to “secure the first three or four points” in the third set was critical in his team’s collapse. Speraw added that Alan Knipe’s introduction of Torwie also cost UCLA.

“Torwie got going and then everybody got going from the service line,” Speraw said. “Once that happened, it became really tough on us. It’s tough, I’m just proud of the entire team and just sorry we didn’t get a couple more points at the end.”

Nikolov will experience another first on Saturday when The Beach will suit up one last time this year to face the winner between the No. 2 Ball State Cardinals and the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.

Nikolov getting ready to serve the ball
Nikolov getting ready to serve the ball. Photo credit: Renzo Pocasangre

The Beach is in search of its fourth national title in its history and third under Alan Knipe’s tutelage. The last time LBSU was in the championship game, the team came out on top against the Rainbow Warriors in the 2019 title run.

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