PROVO — Perhaps things had been getting a bit too easy for the BYU men's volleyball team.
After posting six consecutive straight-set victories at home, the second-ranked Cougars were taken to the brink by No. 5 Santa Barbara before pulling out the win in a five-set thriller (25-17, 22-25, 21-25, 25-18, 15-13) Friday night at the Smith Fieldhouse.
Matt Underwood ended it for the Cougars with a kill that went off a Gaucho block and landed out of bounds as the BYU players and crowd erupted.
“It was awesome,” Underwood said of his emotions after providing the game-winning kill. “There was a ton of energy in the building and I was feeling good tonight, so I’m just happy I had the opportunity to do it.”
Underwood finished with 11 kills, providing key play from his position. Leading the way for BYU was Taylor Sander with a game-high 27 kills on a .477 hitting percentage. He also contributed eight blocks.
Santa Barbara was led by Evan Licht and Weston Nielsen, who had 15 kills apiece. Matt Henley added 14.
Sander was at his typical best when it mattered most. The All-American led the way into the fifth set and finished the deciding frame with six kills on a .625 hitting percentage along with three blocks.
“When we needed him, he played phenomenally,” said BYU coach Chris McGown. “He killed a bunch of balls for us, blocked a lot of balls early on in the fifth set, and just did a lot of really good things along the way.”
BYU looked to be in complete control of the match before struggling through the last part of the second set. Up 17-14, the Cougars yielded the next eight points to the Gauchos to trail 22-17 before dropping the set 25-22.
Santa Barbara’s momentum carried into the third set. The Gouchos took an immediate lead and eventually cruised to take the set 25-21.
Things changed for the better for BYU in the fourth.
The Cougars got off to a quick start and built a lead to win the set 25-18 and force the tiebreaker.
“We just had to change our mindset,” Sander said. “We got punched a little bit, but we were able to punch back, compete and play together as a team like we didn’t in the second and third (sets.) It was huge for us to be able to do that.”
Despite being pushed to the brink by a visiting team, BYU feels it can take a lot from such a victory.
“Although we didn’t play great, we found a way to win,” McGown said. “Ultimately I think that’s important for our guys to find that ability to kind of dig out a victory when the other team is really pressing us and when it’s against a great opponent.”
With the win, BYU improves to 17-4 overall and 17-2 in MPSF play. Next up for the Cougars is a home match against No. 8 UCLA Saturday night at the Smith Fieldhouse.