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Columbus, Ohio • The quietest BYU Cougar makes the most noise in the NCAA Tournament.
Soft-spoken junior outside hitter Brenden Sander did it again Thursday night in the national semifinals against Long Beach State, registering 15 kills and a .619 hitting percentage to lead BYU to a 3-0 sweep of the second-seeded 49ers.
"This kid right next to me, Brenden, was just unbelievable," BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said from the podium in the post-match news conference.
Actually, going off Sander's past performances in the Big Dance, it should have been expected.
It was the fourth straight tournament match in which the 6-foot-4 Sander has delivered double-digit kills. He had 11 in BYU's 3-0 sweep of Barton College on Tuesday, 14 in BYU's 3-1 win over Long Beach State in last year's semifinals at Penn State, and 14 in BYU's 3-0 loss to Ohio State in last year's championship match.
The Cougars (26-4) will meet the top-seeded Buckeyes (31-2) again in this year's championship match on Saturday (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) at St. John Arena.
"I guess I just played kind of free. No pressure, really," Sander said. "And all my guys were helping me out and playing together as a team. I dunno, it was just all of us coming together and playing hard. Competing together boosts me up a lot. I can jump a lot higher and hit the ball a lot harder."
Fittingly, Sander ended the match with his 15th kill Thursday, slamming the ball past the Long Beach State defense to give the Cougars a 25-23 win in the third set.
How's he doing it?
"I am not sure, to be honest," Sander said. "I mean, it is a great stage to be on and it is definitely a blessing to represent such a great team, and such a great school. Just representing myself, my family and this school the best that all of us can, it is a great blessing."
He's never been better this season, after a knee injury slowed him considerably in January and February.
"Tonight, I thought all 15 of us, or however many of us are here, were just 100 percent in it and just ready to go, and I think that's going to help us into the finals," Sander said.
Having been given just honorable mention honors on the All-MPSF team, Sander faced four All-Americans across the net from Long Beach State and outplayed all four. Tim Dobbert added 11 kills, Jake Langlois seven and Joseph Grosh five.
The Cougars will need another big team effort to take down Ohio State, which pummeled Hawaii 25-23, 25-18 and 25-19 in the second semifinal.
"I would say we are very hungry," Sander said. "Last year it didn't come out how we wanted, and that just adds a little more motivation for this year. We are very focused, and we are very together as a team, and I think that we have a very good shot, and hopefully we can do the same thing we did tonight."
If nothing else, history is on his side.
Raising his game
BYU junior outside hitter Brenden Sander in his last four NCAA Tournament matches:
Match Kills Hitting pct. Aces
2017 semifinals 15 .619 1
2017 first round 11 .409 1
2016 semifinals 14 .583 2
2016 championship 14 .500 1