Ohio State’s hopes for a third straight men’s volleyball national championship are still alive after a dramatic five-set victory over UC Irvine on Thursday night.
Ohio State (25-5), the No. 5 seed, defeated the fourth-seeded Anteaters 25-19, 22-25, 25-23, 22-25, 16-14 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles.
“It was a slugfest,” Buckeyes coach Pete Hanson said. “Both teams took shots at one another and never really got in control of any set where they put the other team away.”
Ohio State All-American Nicolas Szerszen clinched the match with a crosscourt kill after a back-and-forth final set. Szerszen and redshirt freshman Jake Hanes each had 22 kills. Hanes had a career-high eight service aces.
The Buckeyes will face top-ranked Long Beach State in the NCAA semifinals on Thursday.
Ohio State defended its national title last season in the NCAAs at St. John Arena. But with several key players from that team graduating, Hanson expected some growing pains, even with Szerszen returning.
The Buckeyes endured some bumps in the road, but they are peaking at the right time. They won the Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association title and then ousted King University in an NCAA play-in match at St. John last week.
Ohio State won the first and third sets, but UC Irvine (21-10) countered by winning the following sets.
The Anteaters, from the Big West Conference, led 9-7 in the fifth before Ohio State tied it at 10 on a Szerszen kill. UC Irvine saved one match point at 14-13.
On the next point, Ohio State’s 6-foot setter Sanil Thomas, a first-year starter as a junior, had a clutch block to give the Buckeyes another match point.
“The most unlikely guy on our team, the smallest guy, has the block against one of their best attackers,” Hanson said.
On match point, the Buckeyes, as expected, set it up for Szerszen, who drilled a shot from the left side that barely stayed inbounds at the back right corner.
“We’re not going to be shy about saying who will be taking the biggest swings at the biggest moments,” Hanson said. “It’s going to be Nic Szerszen. It paid off for us.”