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Courtesy BYU Athletics
BYU players and coaches celebrates the Cougars' NCAA tournament semifinal matchup win over Long Beach State on Thursday, May 4, 2017, at St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
I think we’ve become much more of a team than individuals. Tonight I felt that we were 100 percent in it and ready to go. —Brenden Sander

COLUMBUS, Ohio — What a difference a month can make.

About six weeks after being swept away by Long Beach on its homecourt, the No. 3-ranked BYU men's volleyball returned the favor Thursday night (25-20, 25-18, 25-23) at a much bigger venue and advanced to the NCAA championship match. The result wasn't what most were expecting given Long Beach's higher seed and No. 1 ranking throughout most of the season, but from the start the Cougars were the more collected and confident team.

The difference was apparent almost immediately.

After incurring an early 2-0 deficit in the first set BYU rolled to build a 23-18 lead late before putting the set away 25-20 off of a Brenden Sander kill. As for that opening set Sander was practically flawless, throwing down all six of his kill attempts for Cougar points.

Sander rolled from there to score a match-high 15 kills on a .619 hitting percentage as his team followed his lead. Tim Dobbert scored 11 kills and Jake Langlois seven as the Cougars showed a level of complete team play they've yet to achieve this year, despite the team's great success prior to the tournament.

“I think we’ve become much more of a team than individuals,” Sander said. “Tonight I felt that we were 100 percent in it and ready to go.”

“I could go down every single guy,” added BYU coach Shawn Olmstead. “Will (Stanley), who came off the bench, Leo (Durkin) out there — (Erik) Sikes, but I’m just happy for the team. They did a great job following the scouting report.”

Long Beach, meanwhile appeared out of sorts from the start, evidenced by National Player of the Year TJ DeFalco hitting for a ridiculously low (-.125) percent in the first set. On the other side the Cougars were sharp and put constant pressure on the service line to get the 49ers out of rhythm and relatively weak in their counterattacks.

The level of play got even wider between the two teams in the second set.

Three straight service aces from Langlois got the Cougars off to a 5-2 lead and the advantage was expanded gradually from there. Another Sander kill gave BYU an 18-13 edge before a service ace from freshman Will Stanley expanded the lead to 21-15 late. A kill by Joe Grosh ended things and the Cougars went into the third set rolling.

But the 49ers weren't done yet.

Despite BYU's momentum, Long Beach built a quick 10-6 lead in the third set, as players settled down and started to show the type of play they have all season.

“It was kind of scary because we knew that they could play a lot better, which they showed in the third set. So yeah, it was definitely good for us to have that two-set lead," said Dobbert.

As for Dobbert, he played the entire match at the opposite hitter position, with coaches opting to keep former first-team All-American Ben Patch on the bench. Dobbert responded by leading a lot of the way for the Cougars in the third set, after getting off to a bit of a sluggish start.

“I was easy to stay in with the team around me,” Dobbert said of his effort. “I think the biggest issue at the beginning was the timing with my setter, but he told me told me that he would find me and I trust Leo (Durkin) 100 percent.”

Despite some runs by the Cougars, Long Beach still led 19-14 late in the third until the Cougars started to chip away, finally catching the 49ers at 22-22 after Dobbert and Grosh combined for a block. Three straight points from the Cougars — which included two kills by Sander and a service ace by Langlois — closed out the match.

The Cougars celebrated while the 49ers exited after not exhibiting the play they had for most of the year.

“We didn’t perform at the level we wanted to tonight. But it wasn’t for lack of effort or determination or preparation,” said Long Beach coach Alan Knipe. “We didn’t execute well enough early in the match. And by the time we got going, we got ourselves into a hole against a team that was feeling a lot of confidence. They’re a really talented team. They played well.”

With the win BYU advances to play Ohio State in the NCAA championship match on Saturday.