UCLA defeats UC Irvine in a five-set thriller to reach NCAA men's volleyball final

Top-seeded UCLA survived in a five-set thriller over UC Irvine in the NCAA semifinals Thursday at Long Beach’s Walter Pyramid, pulling away late in the fifth set to advance to the national championship game. The Bruins, who won 22-25, 25-20, 25-16, 18-25, 15-12, will try to defend their national championship on Saturday at 2 p.m. against No. 2 seed Long Beach State or No. 3 Grand Canyon.

Outside hitter Ethan Champlin led the Bruins (25-5) with 19 kills and 13 digs, scoring the match-winning kill off a three-man UC Irvine block. He outdueled UC Irvine star Hilir Henno, who had 22 kills, nine digs and an ace one day after he was named AVCA collegiate national player of the year.

Exhausted after the two-and-a-half-hour nail-biter, UCLA’s Cooper Robinson was doubled over with his hands on his knees during the celebration. UCLA libero Matthew Aziz pulled his jersey over his face.

On the other side of the net, UC Irvine players tried to hold back tears while wrapping each other in emotional embraces.

The Anteaters (20-11) had the most losses of any team in the NCAA tournament field, but came one set away from advancing to their first NCAA title game since winning the championship in 2013. Although Henno, a crafty lefty known for his creative shots, entered the match with almost 300 more kills than his second-ranked teammate, he got plenty of help Thursday. Nolan Flexen had 13 kills, while middle blocker Maxim Grigoriev had 11.

The Bruins trailed 10-9 in the fifth set, but won six of the last eight points. Merrick McHenry set up match point by finishing an attack on a one-handed set from Andrew Rowan, who had 41 assists and three digs. McHenry finished with 10 kills on 14 swings with six blocks.

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