LA JOLLA, Calif. - The University of California San Diego took fifth-ranked UC Irvine to the brink of a big upset before falling in a five-set Big West Conference men's volleyball thriller Friday night at RIMAC Arena. Set scores were 24-26, 25-23, 25-22, 22-25 and 17-15.
A third successive loss puts UC San Diego at 9-12 overall and 0-4 in the Big West. The Tritons were agonizingly close to their first-ever win in the first-year conference. UC Irvine moved to 16-5 overall and 3-1 in league play with a fifth straight victory. The previous four had been sweeps, including Thursday's home decision over UCSD.
UC San Diego was without senior standouts Milosh Stojcic and Tanner Syftestad for a third and second match in a row, respectively, due to injury, but the Tritons didn't look short-handed. Four Tritons reached double-figure kills in reigning Big West Freshman of the Week Wyatt Harrison (19), Xander Jimenez (14), Alec Flowers (12), and Nathan Thalken (10) off the bench. Harrison's total was a match and season high.
Setter Connor Walbrecht notched his first collegiate double-double with career bests of 50 assists and 13 digs. He added three kills. Libero Ryan Lew, a fellow sophomore, contributed a match-high 16 digs and five assists.
UC San Diego led for much of the opening frame, by as many as five at 9-4. Flowers served a clutch ace to break a 21-21 tie. Knotted a 10th and final time at 24-24 after UCI turned away one set point, a service error and combo block by Walbrecht and redshirt senior middle blocker Bryan Zhu (San Diego/Rancho Bernardo HS) ended it.
In the second, Flowers and Jimenez teamed up for a pair of gigantic stuff blocks, the first for a 2-0 early edge, and the second to get back to within a pair at 12-10. Walbrecht leveled matters at 19-19 with a kill, and immediately served his ace for a narrow lead, but a late lead nonetheless. A big solo block by Karl Apfelbach regained a 21-20 advantage for the visitors as UCSD called its first timeout. Within moments, a tough Harrison kill to get the Tritons out of trouble put them up, 23-22, but three consecutive Scott Stadick kills made it 1-1 in sets.
The third stanza only saw one tie score at 1-1, and UCI leading for the remainder after a Jimenez service error triggered a 3-0 mini-run. Joel Schneidmiller and Austin Wilmot's cross-court block came at the perfect time to put the 'Eaters at set point. Schneidmiller, like Harrison a true freshman and indeed a four-time Big West Freshman of the Week selection himself, served the ace for a 2-1 set advantage.
UCSD used a 4-0 stretch early to grab a 6-3 lead. Despite an emphatic solo block by Walbrecht on Schneidmiller for 15-12, the Tritons eventually found themselves up against it at 17-16 after a 4-0 UCI run had overturned a three-point deficit for the visitors. The Tritons called for time, and tallied five of the next six, forcing a timeout. A service error and long attack back-to-back by Apfelbach brought on the decider.
The Tritons scored the first two in that fifth on kills by Jimenez and Thalken. They led 8-6 at the side change on Harrison's 18th, and by as many as three at 9-6 when the 'Eaters reeled off the next five, punctuated by a Grant Friedman ace, a Wilmot block, and a combo denial by Schneidmiller and Wilmot. UC San Diego got a big solo stuff from Jimenez on Aaron Koubi to break an 11-11 tie. In the end, the Tritons staved off two match points, via kills by Flowers and Harrison, but not the third, a Stadick kill.
Schneidmiller, Stadick and Apfelbach wound up with 18, 14 and 13 kills, respectively. Wilmot got his hands to 13 total blocks, which ties for the national high in 2018.
UC San Diego is off in the week ahead, as winter quarter final exams begin on Saturday morning. The Tritons will next travel to Honolulu, Hawaii, resuming their season with back-to-back Big West tilts at No. 3 Hawai'i on Friday, March 30, and Saturday, March 31. Both matches begin at 10 p.m. PT inside the Stan Sheriff Center.
Triton Notes: UC San Diego is now 5-6 at home this season, with two to play ... Tanner Syftestad missed his second straight match, and Milosh Stojcic his third ... Wyatt Harrison just missed his first collegiate double-double, with his season bests of 19 kills and nine digs ... Harrison's 50 attacks and three assists were also season highs ... Xander Jimenez's 14 kills were a career high ... Alec Flowers' 12 kills and five digs were both season high, as were Nathan Thalken's 10 kills ... The Tritons have lost to the Anteaters in five sets in three straight meetings inside RIMAC Arena ... In 2016 and 2017, UCSD rallied from 2-0 deficits to force a decider, before falling 15-13 and 17-15, respectively ... UCI has defeated the Tritons 15 times in a row overall, since a come-from-behind 3-1 UCSD triumph in Irvine on Jan. 12, 2011 ... UCI's 21.5 total team blocks were the most against the Tritons this year, and the most since California Baptist managed 22.0 in a three-set home decision on Jan. 23, 2015.
M🏐: Set 1 #UCSanDiego 26, No. 5 @UCImvb 24. #Tritons lead for much of opening frame and pull it out on combo block by Connor Walbrecht and Bryan Zhu. #BWCMVB FOTW Wyatt Harrison 7-1-11 (.545). 🔱 #GoTritons #vbscores #PlayBig #NCAAMVB @BigWestMVB @offtheblock11 pic.twitter.com/WebRfTCPNJ— UCSD Athletics (@UCSDtritons) March 17, 2018