PROVO — The Cougars appear to be peaking when it matters most.
The team put together what could well be considered its best performance of the season with a 3-0 (25-13, 25-18, 25-17) win over USC Saturday night in the first round of the MPSF Conference tournament.
Taylor Sander led the way with a game-high 13 kills with Josue Rivera and Tim Dobbert adding 10 apiece. The Cougars combined for a .519 hitting percentage and 12 team blocks in what coach Chris McGown and players felt was the best team performance of the year.
“I thought everybody did a great job from top to bottom,” McGown said. “We passed well, (Sander) had his best serving night I thought of the season — just really put a lot of pressure on them, and I thought that was the story of the match.”
Sander finished the match with four service aces and a .880 service percentage. His best work came in the second set when he scored three straight aces to cap off a 7-0 scoring run to put BYU up 14-7.
Heading into the match there were some question marks. How the team would respond after dropping four straight matches on the road and how it would fair without the services of starting setter Tyler Heap were the two primary concerns.
Those concerns were alleviated quite quickly, as it were.
The Cougars set the tone immediately with a 5-0 run to start the match and eventually took the first set 25-13 — closing it out with an 8-1 run.
“That’s key getting that fast start and getting confidence from the beginning,” Sander said. “The crowd was great all night, and they really helped us through this.”
Also helping was backup setter Robbie Sutton, who played almost the entire match in place of Heap, who was sidelined with an ankle sprain. Despite making his first ever start, the sophomore didn't appear rattled one bit.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime, so I just had fun," Sutton said.
Sutton finished the match with 36 assists — playing a big role in the Cougars' stellar hitting percentage.
“I think the guys had confidence in him and he’s just a real fiery competitor,” McGown said of Sutton. “He gets out there, he gets after it and he gets passionate and guys got behind him.”
Despite his success, Sutton was quick to credit his teammates.
“I can’t take any credit,” Sutton said. “I’m just the facilitator, everyone else does the dirty work, so all the credit goes to them they make it easy for me.”
Indeed the Cougars kept the Trojans on their heels all night with deft serving and receiving — putting Sutton in prime position time and again to set up Sander and others.
After completely dominating the first two sets, the Trojans woke up and gave a good fight in the third. The set remained close until the Cougars ended it with an 8-2 run to take the deciding set 25-17.
“It’s not easy to maintain that level the whole match against a team that is that good,” McGown said. “So for us to keep our foot on the gas the whole time — I thought that was really important.”
With the win, BYU punches its ticket to the MPSF Conference semifinals where it will host UC Santa Barbara Thursday night at 8 p.m.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @BrandonCGurney
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company