I've never had a group go through more adversity during the school year...So to think that this group is even here, in this moment...I'm just proud of these guys. Every single one of them. —BYU coach Shawn Olmstead
LOS ANGELES — The No. 2-seeded BYU men's volleyball team fell heartbreakingly short yet again, dropping a four-set thriller to No. 3 UCLA (25-22, 24-26, 29-17, 25-19) in the semifinal round of the NCAA championships on Thursday.
It was the fourth time the two teams matched up this year, with each team winning two matches. But the Bruins, playing at home in Pauley Pavilion, won the big one, with the Cougars left to gather themselves after another championship run came up just short.
The teams battled tightly throughout until the Bruins took command in the fourth and final set. The tide turned sharply just prior to the fourth set, as BYU squandered a late lead, and four set points in the third set, to give the Bruins a lot of momentum they then rode into the fourth.
"That's tough, but it's part of the game, and it's part of every sporting event, and it's nothing we're going to sit and lose sleep over," said BYU coach Shawn Olmstead of losing the late lead in the third. "It's part of it, and (UCLA) battled...We grinded, but UCLA was just a bit better."
Leading the way for UCLA was Christian Hessenauer, and his team-high 14 kills. Daenan Gyimah added 13 and Jark Arnitz 10. Leading all scorers was BYU freshman Gabi Garcia Fernandez with 19 kills.
A big key stat was from the service line where BYU committed 25 errors and recorded no service aces, in stark contrast to what occured in the MPSF championships, where its serve largely won the match.
"It was the altitude," said UCLA coach John Speraw regarding BYU's serve proving far less effective. "Playing at BYU is a different experience. How the ball flys, and how they serve there — it has such an impact with how the game is played...We're at sea level, with a lot more oxygen, and it's good for us."
As for the first set, it's hard to lose a set when you hit for a .423 hitting percentage as a team, but that's exactly what the Cougars did.
The problem was UCLA's phenomenal .500 clip, as BYU's defense struggled to find answers to the Bruin attack.
Although BYU hit for a high percentage as a team, with senior leader Brenden Sander hitting for -.143, the Bruin defense appeared intended on shutting down the All-American from the start.
"You just try and line up your defense as best you can, basically, with their tendencies," Speraw said in defending Sander effectively. "He torched us last time we were in Provo, so there's natural ebbs and flows with how the game plays out for individual players. And it just worked out for us."
Both teams upped the defense in what proved to be a tight contest. Neither team led by more than a single point before the Cougars edged ahead 13-11 after three straight points which included a solo block from Felipe de Brito Ferreira and a kill from Sander.
The third two-point lead for the Cougars was at 26-24, which tied the match at one set apiece. Fernandez came alive toward the end of the set by sending down a couple of thunderous kills and then added a crafty one to end things. Faced with a triple-block from the Bruins, the freshman effectively took something off his kill attempt, getting it around the block and finding the floor inbounds for set point.
"He's going to be scary later on in college, and I'm glad I'm leaving so I don't have to see it," Arnitz, a senior, said.
Unable to finish out in the second set was Cyrus Fa'alogo, who left with an apparent leg injury. Subbing in for the sophomore was fellow classmate Storm Fa'agata-Tufuga, who responded well, placing several kills effectively to help the Cougars to the set win.
"That team is probably the most adaptable at that position that we've seen," said UCLA setter Micah Ma'a. "In almost every match we've played them, they've both come in and played really well."
Things remained tight in the third set, although the Cougars found themselves up 22-19 late. But a Ferreira kill went just wide, which cut the lead at 22-20 instead of seeing BYU stretch it to 23-19. The Cougars got back the lead, however, and had three different set points, but failed to close again, as the Bruins took the third set 29-27 on a kill from Jake Arnitz.
"That's sports. He missed by a margin that was very small, but who knows? Maybe it's a different outcome," Olmstead said of the critical point that cut his team's lead to 22-20. "But you can't look at that and say, 'Yes, it's going to be a different outcome.'"
The good news for the Cougars was Sander finding a bit of a groove, after his very slow start, with the senior ending the third set with eight kills on a .167 hitting percentage for the match.
In the fourth set, the Bruins led throughout, then closed things out, sending the Cougars home to Provo earlier than hoped.
Thursday marked the third straight year BYU participated in the NCAA championships, having reached the championship match the prior two seasons, although Olmstead believes doing as much this year may have been the greater accomplishment than the prior two.
"This team has been through more, and it's not things we share with everybody, and it's not excuse. It's just important for these guys to remember," Olmstead said. "I've never had a group go through more adversity during the school year...So to think that this group is even here, in this moment...I'm just proud of these guys. Every single one of them."