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It would be difficult with numbers or words to convey how dead in the water the Long Beach State men’s volleyball team looked after two sets in their NCAA Final Four match against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night. The team hadn’t reached 20 points in either frame and struggled to receive serve or get into its offense. Showing incredible resolve the Beach blew the Bruins out in the third and fourth set and then took the fifth for a remarkable win, 18-25, 18-25, 25-15, 25-10, 16-14.
The Beach will play Hawaii for the NCAA title Saturday at 5 p.m. back at Pauley Pavilion.
“I have to give my crew a ton of credit for their grit after being down 2-0,” said LBSU coach Alan Knipe. “That was one heck of a response. We’ll take it. I’m proud of ‘em.”
The recently-crowned National Player of the Year sure looked it, as freshman Alex Nikolov wasn’t intimidated by his first NCAA Final Four, finishing with a match-high 20 kills, two blocks, an ace, three assists, and six digs. Nikolov also hit .405 in the match.
“This is what every athlete trains for,” said Nikolov. “I love it. I’ve had my fair share of experiences with big crowds but this was special because it was my first Final Four. I’m happy we won.”
No player better represented the Beach’s turnaround than Spencer Olivier, who struggled in the first two sets (with zero kills and three errors), then was able to dig deep and turn it around, finishing with nine kills, two blocks, and three digs.
“My hitting wasn’t what I would have liked, and (assistant coach) Nick Amado just said relax, you’re fine, do you,” said olivier. “I just focused on what I could make work–passing, getting some blocks, and it snowballed and helped me free up in attacking. After that second set it was do or die, we just had to outwork them.”
The match was just another Long Beach State and UCLA classic, on the same floor where the Beach beat the Bruins to claim the 2018 NCAA title in a five-set thriller.
“The match, I think that’s what we’ve come to get used to when we play these guys,” said Knipe. “They put pressure on us early and we put pressure on them late and then it was a race to 15.”
There was no one turning point after the first two sets, which saw the Beach lose by a combined 50-36, and never lead after the third point of either frame. UCLA was hitting .347 at that point and had six aces, while Long Beach was hitting .225 and had just two kills combined from Clarke Godbold and Olivier, both All-American pin-hitters.
While there wasn’t one turning point, there’s also no doubt that middle blocker Simon Torwie, a 6-10 sophomore force of nature, was a big part of the flipped switch. Torwie was ripping serves along with Godbold and Nikolov, as the Beach suddenly were unstoppable from the end line, giving UCLA just as much trouble receiving serve as the Beach had had in the first two sets. In the first two sets, Long Beach State was in system only 38% of the time, to UCLA’s 70%. In the next two sets Long Beach State won 25 points were they were serving, sided out at a 96% clip, and had UCLA out of system the entire time.
“We were out of system a lot, we couldn’t set quick,” said UCLA coach John Speraw. “We’ve seen (Torwie) win sets serving, we knew he was a player capable of that. He hasn’t done that in sequential sets, but he just kept rolling all the way through. The other guys got going but he was the difference.”
Torwie’s match-high four aces included match point after a back-and-forth fifth set, which brought the entire Beach bench onto the floor as the crowd celebrated in jubilation behind them. Godbold finished with 11 kills on .688 hitting and Aidan Knipe battled through a fifth-set injury with 37 assists to lead his team to a .412 attack.
The match took place four years to the day from Long Beach State’s NCAA Final win over UCLA in 2018.