Reed Saxon, AP
BYU's Josue Rivera (6), of Puerto Rico, gets the ball past Penn State blockers Nick Goodell (4), Ian Hendries (12) and Aaron Russell (8) in the third set of their NCAA Final Four college volleyball tournament semifinal at UCLA in Los Angeles Thursday, May 2, 2013. BYU won, 25-21, 25-16, 25-22. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
LOS ANGELES — BYU men's volleyball coach Chris McGown has preached one thing all season: Get better every match. With one game left in the season, the Cougars will play for the national championship against UC Irvine Saturday night and McGown's squad looks to be hitting on all cylinders.
Playing "BYU volleyball" has been the mantra of this team all season, and if Thursday night is any indication, BYU volleyball is championship volleyball. Down by five points early in the third set Thursday against Penn State, the Cougars dug deep and stormed back to take the match in straight sets.
"There was never any doubt we'd come back and win. In that third set when we took that timeout there was just this feeling of, 'OK, we're behind by a few points, but we'll settle in,'" McGown said.
"We just kept battling and fighting and once we got to 20 points we just started rolling. It was important to show us that when we play our game and play with correct principles, we'll win."
It took some solid defensive play and 18 digs to pull out that third set, but it was the play at the net that set the tone early and put the Cougars on cruise control to take the first two sets in fairly short order. Taylor Sander was in the middle of all the action and helped direct the ship Thursday night.
"We had a game plan coming in," Sander said. "We studied them a little bit and knew their tendencies and came in trying to play aggressive at the net."
The Cougars tallied seven blocks in the first set and 4 1/2 in the second before Penn State notched its first. The dominance at the net and aggressive nature BYU brought to the match was something McGown was pleased to see.
"I was happy to see how hard they came out and played tonight," McGown said. "We've played well all year and I'm so proud that the guys came in and executed our game plan and fought back when we got down. It's a lot of fun too see them play to their potential."
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Now, the Cougars turn their attention to trying to play to their potential in the biggest game of all. If the Cougars are going to win their first national championship since 2004, it will be on the backs of Sander and freshman Ben Patch.
On Saturday, those two — and all their teammates — hope to show UC Irvine just what "BYU volleyball" is really about.
Jonathan Boldt is a sports writing intern for the Deseret News covering the Utah Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jboldt24 - www.boldted.com