USC's Tony Ciarelli celebrates a kill against Cal State Northridge… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
USC, on the verge of possibly being shut out from the first men's volleyball Final Four that it would play host to, breathed a sigh of relief Sunday when the NCAA selection committee awarded the Trojans an at-large berth.
UC Irvine is seeded first and will play fourth-seeded Penn State on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Galen Center. Second-seeded USC plays third-seeded Lewis University at 8 p.m.
Irvine (24-5) earned the top seeding by winning the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament championship with a five-set victory over Stanford on Saturday night.
"It's almost appropriate that we play Penn State," said Irvine Coach John Speraw, whose team lost to the Nittany Lions in the 2006 semifinals and defeated them in 2007 en route to the Anteaters' first NCAA title. "It's a good rivalry with a ton of respect between the programs."
Irvine defeated top-ranked USC, the MPSF regular-season champion, in five sets in the semifinals, ending the Trojans' 18-match winning streak. The defeat put the Trojans in limbo, but the committee chose the Trojans over Stanford and Brigham Young.
It will be USC's third Final Four appearance in four years. The Trojans lost to Irvine in the 2009 title match and to UC Santa Barbara in the semifinals last year.
"Hopefully," senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli said, "we'll take advantage this time."
Two-time NCAA champion Penn State (23-5) is making its 27th Final Four appearance, and 14th in a row.
Lewis (26-6) advanced to the Final Four for the fifth time.