No. 12 Gauchos Upset No. 3 UC Irvine in Five Set Thriller

Roy McFarland (Photo by Eric Isaacs)
Roy McFarland (Photo by Eric Isaacs)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Playing its final home game of the regular season, the No. 12 UC Santa Barbara men's volleyball team gave the crowd a lasting memory with a thrilling 3-2 (23-25, 25-23, 23-25, 25-23, 15-13) upset over No. 3 UC Irvine inside Rob Gym on Thursday night.

It was sweet redemption for the Gauchos (11-11, 4-5 Big West), who lost both matches last season to the Anteaters (19-8, 5-4 Big West) in five sets. In fact, five of the last nine meetings between these two teams have gone the distance while Thursday's win was just the second for UCSB over UCI during that nine-game stretch.

UC Irvine came out of the gates hot in the first set, tallying a .500 hitting percentage with 13 kills on 22 attempts and just two errors. The Gauchos were hanging around early until, with UCI leading 18-16, the Anteaters scored four straight points to go ahead 22-16. The six-point lead was the largest for either team all night in a closely contested battle and it did not last long.

Kills from Connor Drake and Corey Chavers kept the Gauchos close and gave UCSB momentum despite trailing 24-19. After a service error gave the serve back to UCSB, the Gauchos rattled off four straight points of their own, highlighted by back-to-back kills from Brandon Hopper to make it 24-23. A UCSB service error, however, gave the opening set to UCI.

The two teams battled back and forth in the second set until, with UCI leading 8-7, the Gauchos went on a four-point run behind a pair of UCI attacking errors and a pair of kills from Chavers to put UCSB ahead 11-8. A 6-3 spurt for UCI tied the game at 14-14 before the Gauchos went on a 5-3 run behind kills from Hopper and Casey McGarry. UCI battled back to tie the score at 21-21, but the Gauchos got two clutch kills from Roy McFarland on assists from McGarry to take a crucial two-point lead down the stretch, 23-21. UCI bounced back once more with two straight points, but UCSB turned to Drake for a big kill followed by a UCI attacking error to even the game at 1-1.

The Gauchos outhit the Anteaters .321 to .296 in the second but the third set would see both teams hitting percentages drop significantly.

As the back-and-forth action continued, UCSB pulled ahead 13-10 in the pivotal third set before UCI went on an 8-1 run to take a 19-15 lead. The Gauchos rallied all the way back to tie the score at 22-22 after strong plays from Keenan Sanders, but UCI snagged three of the last four points behind a pair of kills from Aaron Koubi to take a 2-1 lead. UCI hit their lowest percentage of the night in the set, .205, but had their highest kill total of 18 while the Gauchos managed just seven kills in the set on a .133 hitting percentage.

In the fourth, however, the Gauchos would significantly tighten up their accuracy and hit .343 with 16 kills, pulling out another close set 25-23 to force a decisive fifth set. UCSB found itself trailing 21-19 before rattling off four straight points behind two UCI errors and kills from McFarland and Hopper. After a UCI ace tied the set at 23-23, McFarland slammed home a kill for game point and a bad set from the Anteaters sent the game to the fifth.

In the fifth, UC Irvine raced out to a 7-4 lead, but the Gauchos looked to flip the script from the previous season and scored three of the next four points, highlighted by a Drake kill, to get within one point, 8-7, as the teams switched sides. McFarland came through late in the set with a kill to tie the score at 10-10 and moments later giving the Gauchos a 12-10 lead. The two teams traded points until a service error from the Anteaters gave UCSB the 15-13 set and match victory.

McFarland finished with 16 kills on 40 attempts to lead the Gauchos while Sanders also reached double figures with 10 kills. Hopper was close behind with nine while Drake and Spencer Fredrick tallied seven apiece in a well-rounded offensive game for UCSB. McGarry handled most of the setting duties on the night with 34 assists while Randy DeWeese pitched in 10. McGarry also notched 12 digs for the double-double. Fredrick finished with five total blocks at the net while Drake finished with four.

Karl Apfelbach led UC Irvine with a game-high 17 kills and Koubi finished with 16. Setter Dante Chakravorti dished out 57 assists and David Parker tallied a game-high 13 digs.

UCSB rounds out the regular season with another match against UC Irvine on the road this Saturday, Apr. 14 at 7:00 p.m. at the Bren Events Center.