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'Eaters falter at USC

LOS ANGELES — Invariably, in the exceptionally competitive men's volleyball environment of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, there will come a time when Plan B comes prominently into play.

Call it having something to fall back on.

UC Irvine has been dealing with Plan B for the better part of six weeks. But it finally came back to haunt the No. 2-ranked Anteaters on Saturday at top-ranked USC.

Coach John Speraw, whose Anteaters could have claimed the inside track on an MPSF regular-season title, were bested, 25-22, 25-19, 27-29, 25-18, by the Trojans, on a night when UCI junior setter Chris Austin struggled, according to Speraw.

Austin, a transfer from Long Beach City College, has been filling in for sophomore starter Daniel Stork, who has still not been cleared after sustaining a concussion in late February.

"For the first time in a long time, I just feel like we didn't execute, offensively," Speraw said. "For the first time in a long time, we didn't set the ball real well. We didn't connect."

Austin, who had a career-high 60 assists in Thursday's win at Pepperdine, finished with 46 assists. But the Anteaters (20-5, 16-5 in conference) hit .206 as a team.

USC (20-4, 16-4), which can close out the regular-season MPSF crown with wins at Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State next week, used its fall-back plan to greater effect on Saturday.

"USC is not super flashy and it's a very good defensive team," Speraw said. "[The Trojans] block a lot of balls, so if their offense isn't going great, they have something to fall back on. And they fell back on that [Saturday]."

USC, which hit .287 as a team, posted a 14-5.5 advantage in team blocks.

In addition, UCI had 20 service errors and seven aces, while USC, on a 15-match win streak, managed four aces with its nine missed serves.

UCI came in having won 11 of its last 12 and was 9-0 on the road entering Saturday. But Speraw said his team is clearly in a slump.

"You can see it in practice," Speraw said. "The fist team got beat just about every drill [in practice] the entire week. So, we're going to have to figure something else out here. We've got some ideas."

Senior All-American opposite Carson Clark had a team-best 17 kills and one of his two aces closed out the third-set win for the visitors.

Sophomore outside hitter Jeremy Dejno had 13 kills and hit .308, while collecting a team-best three aces.

Junior outside hitter Kevin Tillie led the 'Eaters with nine digs, but had just three kills and wound up hitting .000. Tillie had two kills and hit a negative .222 against Pepperdine.

"I think our slump has a lot to do with individual players who are slumping," Speraw said. "If they can come back and do what they are capable of doing, then we're going to be just fine."

UCI enters the final week in third place with just one road match against UC San Diego on Saturday. But the 'Eaters would lose in tie-breaker scenarios if it wound up even with BYU (17-5 in conference), UCLA (15-5) and Stanford (15-5).

The top eight teams qualify for the MPSF Tournament, the first round of which is hosted by the top four seeds. The MPSF semifinals then would be hosted by the conference regular-season champion. The MPSF Tournament champion is guaranteed a spot in the four-team NCAA Championships, which this year are May 3 and May 5 at USC.

The lone at-large berth into the Final four is usually awarded to an MSPF team.

barry.faulkner@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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