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Drought ends as UCLA tops Hawai’i to win NCAA men’s volleyball championship

If a team is going to win its first national title in 17 years and a coach is going to win one at his alma mater, it might as well be in epic fashion against the reigning champs.

UCLA and two-time defending national champion Hawai’i went blow for blow Saturday night at George Mason’s EagleBank Arena in what will go down as one of the great finals in men’s college volleyball history. When the dust settled, UCLA earned it’s long-awaited 20th national championship with a 28-26, 31-33, 25-21, 25-21 victory over the Rainbow Warriors.

They even got to celebrate in the National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship victory twice.

After UCLA put down a ball on a Hawai’i overpass, the Bruins stormed the court. But Rainbow Warriors coach Charlie Wade challenged that there was a net violation, so the euphoria was put on hold.

After a brief review, the point was upheld, and UCLA celebrated again.

It was the fourth national title for Bruins coach John Speraw but his first at the school where he won twice as a player.

In the process, UCLA (31-2) stopped the Rainbow Warriors (29-3) from earning a piece of history. A win would have made Hawai’i the first team since UCLA (1981-84) to win more than two titles in a row.

“All those championships are meaningful,” Speraw said when asked if this title meant more than the others because it came at the helm of his alma mater. “It’s hard to say one is more important than the other because of all the relationships and experiences that go in. And now we have these experiences with these guys, and it’s their time.

“I do feel really … I’m an alum here. So I felt I really wanted to do this for them and wanted to do it for all the guys who toiled and won and tried hard in the last number of years to get it over the top and were close … And I know it’s great for the institution. I can’t even imagine how happy everybody is at UCLA. Everybody is so into it at UCLA.”

Alex Knight was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, and he delivered across the board in the final. He had 15 kills (hitting .353), two aces, three block assists and was perfect on serve receive.

Ido David led the Bruins with 23 kills, and Merrick McHenry had 11 kills, an ace and two block assists. Freshman setter Andrew Rowan had 60 assists, an ace and a solo block.

UCLA also got a standout effort from super-senior J.R. Norris IV. Normally a reserve, Norris played a bigger-than-usual role in the final, getting eight kills on 11 swings and five aces, four in the final set.

The Rainbow Warriors were led by Dimitrios Mouchlias’ 18 kills. The Greek international, who earlier announced he would forego his final season to pursue pro opportunities, also had six digs and two blocks. Countryman Spyros Chakas had 12 kills, an ace and seven digs, and Cole Hogland added six kills and seven total blocks.

AVCA national player of the year Jakob Thelle had 50 assists, an ace and three block assists.

The opening two sets were the stuff of legend.

In the first set, both teams keeping mistakes to a minimum. Only once did either team lead by more than three – Hawai’i was up 9-6 and 23-20 – and there were 14 ties.

UCLA got off to a good start thanks to nine kills by David, who picked up right where he left off in the Bruins’ victory over Long Beach State semifinal, when he had a pair of seven-kill sets. Mouchlias and Chakas kept Hawai’i going with five kills each.

With the score 26-26, a blocking error on the Rainbow Warriors and David’s final kill gave the Bruins a 28-26 win. Middle blocker Norris IV gave UCLA a lift off the bench with tweo kills late in the set, one to pull the Bruins within 23-21 and another to tie it 24-24.

In the second set, UCLA took the lead at 8-7 and steadily built on it until it led 19-13. The Rainbow Warriors looked to be reeling, but a Bruins service error and a three-point service run by Thelle brought Hawai’i to 19-17.

A kill by David, his 12th, and an ace by Knight put UCLA back in control at 22-18. But back came the champs again, as a service error, a block by Hogland and a kill by Mouchlias drew Hawai’i to 22-21.

A kill by Ethan Champlin stopped the run to restore the Bruins’ two-point lead, but Mouchlias’ push off a UCLA block and an attack error tied the score 23-23. Hogland then gave Hawai’i its first lead since 6-5 by hitting a quick set off the block and out of bounds.

Champlin’s kill to save set point sent the set to overtime. UCLA initially fought off three set points and took a 29-28 lead. Then it was Hawai’i’s turn to fight off set points, two, to be exact. The Rainbow Warriors had another set point at 31-30, but a Norris kill evened the score.

Hawai’i finally triumphed 33-31 thanks to its Greek connection. Chakas had a kill from the back row, then Mouchlias’ swing went off the UCLA block to even the match. Mouchlias (11) and Chakas (seven) combined for 18 kills through the first two sets.

As might have been expected, the third set again was nip-and-tuck. Neither team led by more than two until UCLA grabbed a 16-13 lead on a kill off a Hawai’i block. A successful replay challenge by Hawai’i coach Charlie Wade (net violation) briefly saved the Rainbow Warriors from a four-point deficit, but a kill by David and a rare error for Thelle (double contact) put the Bruins up 18-14.

UCLA got the lead up to 20-15, but Hawai’i got back to within 21-19 thanks to a kill and subsequent block by Hogland. But Norris received a serve off the tape, passed to Rowan, who teed up Norris for his seventh kill. Then Rowan served an ace to restore the four-point lead, then, after back-to-back points from Hawai’i, kills by Norris and David, his 20th, gave UCLA the 25-21 win and a 2-sets-to-1 lead.

The fourth set was much like the first three: There was little separation between the teams for much of the set until UCLA pulled away late. Norris’ back-to-back aces put UCLA up by six, 22-16, and the Bruins kept the Rainbow Warriors at arm’s length from there.

The defeat was tough to absorb for the Rainbow Warriors, even with their previous success. But, Wade said, there is no denying this group’s legacy.

“Super proud of this group for what it accomplished,” Wade said. “For us playing in the final match four years in a row, that hasn’t happened, to my knowledge, since some time in the early ‘80s. Really historic what these guys have been able to do.

“One match at the end of a long season and the end of some exceptional careers is not going to define us. What is going to define us is the character that these young men bring every day to practice and to represent the university … We’re going to miss them for sure.”

Now the Bruins, at long last, get to experience the feeling of a champion that Hawai’i had monopolized for two years. And gave away grudgingly.

“What a match,” Speraw said. “Had to fight for every point. Hawai’i was never out of it. You could see their maturity and experience on the court because they just never seemed rattled. They always kept coming and coming and coming … Almost a surprise to me when the last ball dropped.”

UCLA wins the 2023 NCAA men’s title/UCLA photo