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Provo • BYU's top-ranked men's volleyball team was pushed to the limit on Thursday night, which coach Shawn Olmstead feared it would against a team fighting to keep its season alive.
But in the end, the regular-season champion Cougars made enough plays to beat fifth-seeded UC Santa Barbara 3-2 in front of 3,151 fans at Smith Fieldhouse in an MPSF semifinal match.
The Cougars (25-3) will take on UCLA at 7 p.m. on Saturday for the tournament title. The scores were 25-18, 25-22, 23-25, 24-26 and 15-12.
"We were assertive in the fifth set when we needed to be, took some big swings," Olmstead said. "It's something we can learn from. It is an opportunity to grow."
The Cougars never trailed in the decisive fifth set, and saw star hitters Ben Patch and Brenden Sander combine to make five kills for BYU's final five points Sander three and Patch two. Sander had the final putaway after being set up by sophomore setter Leo Durkin.
The visitors had the momentum heading into the final set after winning the third and fourth sets, playing a brilliant defensive game to keep BYU's powerful hitters Jake Langlois is a big weapon as well at bay.
Patch finished with 32 kills, his second-best kills total ever, while Sander had 19 and Langlois 12. The Cougars hit .388, boosted by a .647 hitting percentage in the final set. Five UCSB hitters had 12 or more kills each, led by Ryan Hardy and Matt Marsh with 15 apiece.
"Just trust," Patch said, when asked what changed for the Cougars in the fifth set. "It doesn't take coaches, it doesn't take fans, it just takes each other. And that's the biggest thing, it is about us and the story we are creating."
The Cougars rolled early, and took the first set easily behind strong net play. Patch had four kills in the opening stanza and Price Jarman, Langlois and Sander had three apiece. Langlois got the clincher, after a nice pass from backup setter Robbie Sutton, a regular last year.
The second set was a bit more difficult for the home team, as UCSB (20-10) climbed off the canvas with a 5-0 run midway through the set to knot it at 18.
Patch righted BYU with a kill to make it 21-19, and Michael Hatch's block and Sander's kill clinched it. The set featured a rally, eventually won by UCSB, that was so entertaining and filled with heroic digs and saves that the crowd roared its approval when it ended.
BYU never had the lead in the third set, falling behind 5-0 before rallying several times late. Trailing 24-21, the Cougars got kills from Patch and Langlois, but an error at the net on BYU gave the Gauchos the 25-23 win.
The fourth set was tight throughout, with neither team leading by more than two. The Gauchos won the last two points on errors by BYU, a Langlois over-the-net call and a hitting error by Patch.
"It was just surreal," Patch said of the fifth set, when the crowd was at full throat and every point contested intensely. "There's something about the energy here that is just magical."
UCLA 3, Long Beach State 0
JT Hatch had 14 kills to lead the Bruins (25-5) to a straight-set win over Long Beach State (24-7) in the first semifinal, 26-24, 28-26 and 25-19.
The Cougars won a pair of 3-1 matches over UCLA in the regular season, both at UCLA.
R Leo Durkin has a career-high 62 assists and 12 digs as BYU improves to 25-3.
• Ben Patch adds 32 kills and a .480 hitting percentage for BYU.