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Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge: UCLA men’s volleyball defeats Penn State in 5-set battle

Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Cooper Robinson rises above the net for a block attempt. Robinson leads the team in kills on the season and notched 11 in Friday evening’s affair against Penn State. (Zimo Li/Daily Bruin)

Men’s Volleyball

No. 4 UCLA3
No. 9 Penn State2

By Connor Dullinger

March 8, 2024 8:17 p.m.

The Nittany Lions went on a 3-0 scoring run late in Friday’s fifth set.

But the Bruins found their answer.

Coach John Speraw sent Cooper Robinson to the floor. The redshirt sophomore outside hitter struck a kill, and the Bruins garnered a 5-2 run.   

This spurt allowed No. 4 UCLA men’s volleyball (15-4, 5-1 MPSF) to hand No. 9 Penn State (13-6, 4-0 EIVA) a defeat in the first match of the annual Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge. Robinson carved in his seventh consecutive double-digit kill figure of the season Friday evening.

“I was ready to go back in and contribute whatever way I could,” Robinson said. “I know when coach calls on me to get a kill when the game’s close, I can do it.”

The Bruins swept the Nittany Lions in front of 2,485 fans at the Austin Convention Center in January’s First Point Collegiate Challenge. But in the teams’ second meeting, they met at USC’s Galen Center Pavilion – a step down from the Galen Center and a stark contrast to January’s rink. Amid sparsely populated stands, the East Coast support overpowered the Bruin faithful.

Despite a comfortable 25-20 clinch of the opening set, the Bruins fell victim to eight service errors and five attack errors in the following frame. Faulty execution behind the line shifted the tide of the match, allowing the Nittany Lions to claim back-to-back sets and improve from a .143 hitting percentage to .312 and .480 in the second and third frames, respectively.

UCLA’s efficiency on the attack saw a flipped trajectory. After striking at .414 in the first frame – spurred on by figures above .500 from Robinson and redshirt senior middle blocker Merrick McHenry – its numbers dropped through each frame. 

“We had a lot of bad runs, but we climb back every time, and this team is resilient,” Robinson said. “We show it every night. In the fifth set, we definitely had some guys who stepped up and had big moments and made some plays for our team.”

Bruin errors allowed the Nittany Lions to claim long scoring runs, including an 8-1 spurt in the beginning of the second set. In the stretch, UCLA committed two service errors and one attack error to allow its foe to jolt to a 9-3 lead – one it would not relinquish through the stanza. 

In spite of the team’s errors, junior outside/opposite hitter Ido David said the Bruins are unafraid of making mistakes.

“I don’t think we are concerned about making a mistake,” David said. “We have no fear, and we give the best that we can and we do it again and again and again.”

Junior Ido David elevates and eyes the ball for a serve. The outside hitter/opposite posted a game-high three service aces in UCLA men’s volleyball’s win against Penn State. (Zimo Li/Daily Bruin)

The Nittany Lions also committed their slew of errors Friday evening. But that wasn’t their kryptonite.

The Bruins stood against the nation’s leader in hitting percentage – Toby Ezeonu – but held the middle blocker to a .000 clip through the first two frames. Despite six kills and two aces in the third set, Ezeonu was limited to nothing beyond his third-frame figures. 

Although errors with the serve proved harmful, David’s entrance in the fourth frame triggered what appeared to be an entirely new Bruin arsenal. David mustered four kills on a .375 clip, three aces and two blocks in just two frames. With back-to-back victories in crunch time, UCLA maintained its season winning streak against Penn State. 

“Ido provided some great energy. He served extremely well, got us some key points that helped us get the momentum back in the fourth set,” Speraw said. “He attacked really well and opened up the right side of the floor for us.”

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