UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. On Thursday, BYU volleyball coach Jason Watson predicted the winner of BYU's match against Middle Tennessee State would be the team that could play well over the longest period of time.
Friday night in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Women's Volleyball Tournament, the head coach's words rang true, and Watson's Cougars proved to be that team, overpowering MTSU through three games (30-28, 30-22, 34-32) that spanned nearly two hours.
The victory lands the Cougars (24-7) in the regional finals for the first time since 1998, when, like this year, they played at and against Penn State.
After winning the first two games, BYU fell behind in the third, trailing 10-18 at one point. A point off a double block from middle hitter Rachel Dyer and setter Amy Schlauder, however, served as the catalyst for a 17-7 run, putting the Cougars up by two. The Blue Raiders battled back and even had three game points, but BYU was able to close out the match on a double block from Dyer and Bryn Porter.
The Cougars attributed the comeback effort to clutch blocking and improved passing as the third game went on.
"We did touch a lot of balls, and that helps our defense a lot," said Dyer, who led all players with four blocks on the night. "When we are able to start touching the balls and slowing them down, that really helped our transition game."
MTSU was outblocked 11.5-8.5, a statistic that contributed to the Blue Raiders' mediocre .215 hitting percentage. Also playing a role in that attack percentage was BYU's service game, which consistently put Middle Tennessee State in a bad position on offense.
"Driving those passers back off the serve, forcing them into one option and putting pressure on their hitters was key," Watson said.
Blue Raiders head coach Matt Peck put the blame on his own squad.
"I don't think BYU is a better team than us, we just didn't play a good match tonight," said Peck. "BYU didn't disrupt our hitting; we disrupted our hitting. We did it to ourselves."
On the other side of the net, BYU's hitters were solid throughout the match. Senior outside hitter Chelsea Goodman paced all players with 19 kills on 39 total attacks. Dyer chipped in with 15 kills of her own, hitting at a .500 clip.
"The main thing was passing," said Goodman. "We were able to get our middles involved. When we get them involved, we're untouchable."
Game One went back and forth with five ties and three lead changes. A 9-2 run put the Cougars ahead 19-15, giving them a lead they would carry throughout the rest of the game. A ball-handling error on the Blue Raiders gave BYU a 30-28 win in the opening set.
The Cougars controlled the second game, outhitting MTSU by a margin of .375-.143.
With a trip to the Final Four in Sacramento at stake, BYU takes on the No. 1 Nittany Lions this afternoon at 4:30. Penn State swept Michigan (30-15, 30-18, 30-18) on Friday to advance. Watson did not want to be reminded of the meeting between these two programs here in 1998, as it ended in a Penn State sweep.
The Cougars have now won 10 straight matches, while Penn State (31-2) boasts a streak of 23 consecutive victories.