Hawai’i men’s volleyball’s run through the 2024 OUTRIGGER Big West Championship tournament presented by the Hawaiian Islands came to an end Friday night as the ‘Bows fell in the semifinals in three sets to #2 seed UC Irvine. | Photo Credit: Michael Lasquero, HSRN

Serving woes dash Hawai’i’s Big West dreams in semifinal loss to UC Irvine

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED APRIL 19, 2024

HONOLULU – There will be a new champion in the Big West. 

The 3rd-seeded Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (23-7) saw hopes of a third consecutive conference tournament title go up in flames Friday night, falling victim to 19 service errors in an uber-competitive three-set semifinal loss to the 2nd-seeded UC Irvine Anteaters, 26-24, 36-34, 25-15, in the 2024 OUTRIGGER Big West Men’s Volleyball Championship tournament.  

The victory served as a dose of payback for the Anteaters (19-9), who hosted the 2023 Big West Championship and eventually fell to the then-top seeded Rainbow Warriors in four sets in the title match. 

It looked like it would be all Hawai’i early as the ‘Bows raced out of the gates to a 7-1 lead behind a sizzling run at the service line by redshirt sophomore middle blocker Kurt Nusterer that included a pair of aces, but UC Irvine responded with six of the next seven points to get right back into the set while prompting a UH timeout. 

The break in the action helped Hawai’i get back to scoring, trading points to maintain a one-point lead in the opening frame before a 3-1 scoring run gave UH a three-point advantage at the set’s midway point, 15-12. 

After UCI’s Hilir Henno tied the match at 17, Hawai’i went back in front by two with the help of a service error from the Anteaters and a loud block from Nusterer at the net. Again, UC Irvine fought back to tie the set’s opening frame with the next two points before UH gained the advantage back with a Keoni Thiim high-flying attack to make it 22-21. 

UC Irvine tallied three of the next four points to push the ‘Bows to the brink in the 1st set before being sent into extra points by another Thiim attack that found a piece of court. The Anteaters wasted little time finishing out the frame after Connor Campbell blocked an attack from Nusterer to give a 25-24 advantage to UCI and a triple-block at the net for the 2nd-seeded ‘Eaters delivered the night’s first stanza in the pocket of Irvine.

The night’s 2nd set opened in a bit of a flipped script from the premiere frame as the Anteaters jumped out to a 5-2 lead before Hawai’i stabilized to pull back within a point. Kurt Nusterer dunked a free ball off a mishandled Kai Taylor serve to continue the Rainbow Warriors’ momentum, tying the set at 13 before combining with Chaz Galloway for a block at the net that gave Hawai’i its first lead of the encore stanza, 14-13, and force a timeout from UCI.  

Following the timeout, an ace from All-Freshman team selection Louis Sakanoko gave the ‘Bows a multi-point cushion before he handed the point right back on a service error. Old friend Brett Sheward dropped in an ace of his own to tie it at 17-all right afterwards for the ‘Eaters, trying to deliver UCI to a two-set advantage. 

Back-to-back errors from UCI gave a two-point lead back to Hawai’i and Nusterer delivered the ’Bows to the doorstep of knotting the match at a set apiece with his fifth kill of the evening, but the Anteaters still would not relent as they rattled off four straight points to set up a set point of their own, 25-24. 

Still, neither side flinched an inch as Thiim smashed a kill off a UCI block to send the second set to extra points. The two sides combined for an additional 20 points as Hawai’i failed to take advantage of nine set point opportunities, finally seeing the frame end on Henno’s 20th kill of the night that ate up a pair of Rainbow Warriors. The kill delivered a 2-0 set lead for the Anteaters in a marathon that ended with a Big West Championships-record 70 total combined points in a 36-34 victory for UCI. 

The never-ending frame proved tiresome to Hawai’i’s morale as the ‘Bows saw a pair of sets go to the opponent after missed opportunities, creating an uneasy feeling to the 6,251 fans cheering on their Rainbow Warriors. 

Hawai’i split the opening 14 points of the 3rd set with UC Irvine to a 7-7 draw before Rainbow Warrior errors compounded with Henno hysteria at the net helped UCI pull away from UH with a comfortable four-point advantage at the media timeout. 

The efficiency from UCI continued after the break as the Anteaters swiftly outscored the ‘Bows with a 10-4 run over the final 14 services, capped off by an ace from 2023 Big West Freshman of the Year Maxim Grigoriev to take the last set, 25-15, and snap a seven-match losing streak in Hawai’i against the Rainbow Warriors. 

Hawai’i head coach Charlie Wade made a strong case for UCI’s Henno to be the frontrunner for the 2024 AVCA National Player of the Year honor following the match after the Frenchman buried a match-best 24 kills across three sets, not committing a service error in 17 attempts from behind the line to buoy the Anteaters into the Big West Championships’ title match for the second straight season. 

“Watching Henno out there tonight, National Player of the Year candidate,” Wade gushed. “If [Henno] isn’t the leader [for AVCA National Player of the Year], I don’t know who is … I think you saw the National Player of the Year out there tonight.” 

It was an up-and-down night for Hawai’i’s Louis Sakanoko, who led the ‘Bows with 12 kills on 29 swings but committed a match-high 12 errors throughout the night. The freshman from France added five digs and an ace while recording a team-best 13 points in three stanzas. The ‘Bows got a boost from the middles throughout the loss as Nusterer and Guilherme Voss combined for 17 kills on 28 combined swings, adding four blocks as well. 

In all, it was a competitive match for Hawai’i that saw the ‘Bows hitting above .400 through two sets and still trail by two frames despite that performance. 

The victory over the host Hawai’i is the first ever postseason win for UCI over their Big West rivals, falling in three previous meetings in the conference tournament. Hawai’i’s season likely will end with the loss, barring a surprise at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Both head coaches from the night’s 2nd semifinal match seemed to have differing opinions on the ‘Bows credentials for the national tournament. 

“The Big West has some really good volleyball teams. For me, that Hawai’i team is a tournament-worthy team for the NCAA [and] they’re doing some really nice stuff,” UC Irvine head coach David Kniffin said in his postgame availability. “For us to come out and win, obviously in this environment, is a big deal and we’re grateful for the opportunity to do that.” 

While Hawai’i has spent the majority of the season sitting inside the national ranking’s top-5, some critical losses against CSUN and UC San Diego hurt the Rainbow Warriors’ chances at receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, an event that only invites eight teams in total with six spots coming via the automatic bid for conference tournament champions and the remaining two being awarded as at-large bids. 

When asked about his team’s chances at making a return to the big dance, Hawai’i head coach Charlie Wade was far less hopeful in his expectations for the season to continue for the ‘Bows. 

“I’d say that’s about zero,” Wade responded about the chances Hawai’i sees a tournament selection on Sunday.