PROVO — BYU looked worthy of its No. 1 ranking Friday night — defeating USC 3-1 (25-22, 19-25, 25-17 and 25-20) in the first leg of its home opener.
As normal, the game was a sellout with 5,121 fans packing the Smith Fieldhouse, providing a decided advantage for their team.
"This atmosphere is incredible," said Taylor Sander. "I wouldn't want to play at any other school — they made you jump six inches higher, and I'm so glad that I'm at BYU just because of the crowd."
Sander's vertical prowess was on full display, as he led the Cougars with 23 kills. Senior Robb Stowell added 14 kills and freshman Josue Rivera added 13 along with a service ace to close out the match.
The Cougars took the first set 25-22 behind Sander's six kills and a distinct advantage in total team blocks — 7.5 to three. Stowell and Rivera contributed four kills a piece. Joe Kauliakamoa finished off the set with a middle block which really got the home crowd going.
The second set looked to go the way of the first before the Trojans used a 12-5 run late — closing out the set 25-19. USC was led by Tony Ciarelli, who recorded seven total kills, and unforced errors played a big role during the set with BYU accounting for seven to USC's two.
"We weren't passing the ball well," said BYU coach Chris McGown. "We weren't bringing the ball up into a zone where our setter could run the offense. … I think we started making some bad swings. We made seven errors during the second set and you just can't win making errors at that rate."
BYU cleaned up what ailed them quickly — getting off to a 3-0 early start and never looking back during the third set. They extended the lead to 9-4, with USC proving unable to cut into the deficit from that point — taking the set 25-17. Sander led the way with seven kills.
The fourth set had the shoe on the other foot early with USC jumping out to a 3-0 lead — forcing an early BYU timeout. The Trojans took the lead to 16-12 before the Cougars came storming back — scoring the next seven points to take a 19-16 lead before closing out the set and the match 25-20.
"There was a point in time during that fourth set when Stowell made a huge block and I was just looking around thinking to myself that this is just the greatest environment," said McGown. "We had a really fun time tonight.
"The boys, once we realized where they were trying to get at us … we tweaked some things and I think we showed some heart. We were down and I think we did some nice things to come back."
BYU responded much like a No. 1-ranked team should respond. While some coaches may downplay a top ranking, McGown feels it's a good thing for two specific reasons.
"It validates the work these guys have put in over several years. You don't just get to the point where you're at in half a season, a lot of years' work have gone into that," he said. "I think it lets our fans know that this is a great volleyball team and it's going to be fun to come to the fieldhouse and watch them play, so with those two things, I think it's great."
The Cougars will match up again against the Trojans tonight at 7 in the Smith Fieldhouse.