Irvine’s preparation, blocks too much for BYU

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The BYU men’s volleyball team failed to capitalize on many opportunities in a loss to the University of California, Irvine Anteaters in the NCAA championship Saturday night.

“It was remarkable how well they defended us,” BYU head coach Chris McGown said. “They were better tonight than anybody we’ve played.”

The Cougars held leads in each set but failed to finish off the Anteaters, even squandering three set points in the third set. The Anteaters’ blocking was the story of the match, as UCI used 17 total blocks in the match to mount comebacks in each of the sets. Irvine won the national title over BYU 25-23, 25-22, 26-24 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.

“They executed and we just couldn’t find points,” McGown said. “We got a little predictable offensively. We were surprised to see them block 17 balls. It’s unreal.”

Connor Hughes of UCI was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and led the Anteaters with 11 kills and 2 blocks. Scott Kevorken dominated at the net with 6 ½ blocks and seven kills.

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BYU volleyball coach Chris McGown comforts outside hitter Taylor Sander (15) after the team’s loss Saturday in the NCAA championship game against UC Irvine. (Photo by Elliott Miller)

The Cougars were led by All-American Taylor Sander with 20 kills. Josue Rivera and Russ Lavaja contributed eight kills each.  Sander expressed his disappointment through teary eyes after the match.

“It’s hard to get to this point in the season and not come out with a championship,” Sander said. “They just showed up tonight and we were a little bit caught off guard. Hats off to them, they played a wonderful match.”

UCI head coach David Kniffin gave BYU credit and said he knew they would have to get through the Cougars to win the national championship.

“We had a feeling that BYU was the team we would be playing at this moment,” Kniffin said. “This whole season has been planned around figuring out a way to beat BYU.”

The Cougars jumped out to an 8-5 lead in the first set, but a couple of 3-0 runs and strong blocking to counter Sander’s six kills gave the Anteaters a 24-23 lead. A kill by Kyle Russell off the BYU block gave UCI the first set.

Behind two kills each from Russ Lavaja and Josue Rivera, BYU built an 11-4 lead in the second set. UCI countered with an 8-1 run to tie the set at 12, led by Scott Kevorken’s two kills and ace. Kevin Tillie also contributed two kills in that stretch.

Another Tillie kill gave the Anteaters their first lead of the set at 14-13 and a kill by Kevorken made it a 19-17 game in favor of UCI. After a kill by Connor Hughes gave UCI a set point, Kevorken blocked Lavaja, clinching the second set for the Anteaters.

In the third set, the teams traded points to an eventual 10-10 tie. Colin Mehring had three kills during that stretch for UCI while Russ Lajava and Devin Young each had two for BYU.

The Anteaters took a 12-10 lead on back-to-back hitting errors by the Cougars. A UCI hitting error and a Taylor Sander kill gave the Cougars the lead back at 14-13, but UCI quickly retook the lead at 15-14 on a kill by Kevin Tillie and a team block.

BYU fought back to tie the game at 17 and a kill by Josue Rivera gave the Cougars a two point advantage at 21-19, forcing a UCI timeout. Two kills from Sander and one from Rivera gave the Cougars a 24-21 lead and their first set point of the match.

A kill from Scott Kevorken and a hitting error by Sander cut the Cougar lead to 24-23, forcing a timeout. A Kevorken block tied the game and a Sander error gave the Anteaters the lead at 25-24 and a match point leading to another BYU timeout. A block from Kevorken and Zack La Cavera gave the Anteaters the set and the match, sending UCI to its second national championship in a row and fourth overall.

Ben Patch and Taylor Sander were named to the all-tournament team, joining six UCI players. The Cougars fell to 3-2 all-time in NCAA title matches.

The Cougars will look to return a strong team next season, losing only two key seniors in Ryan Boyce and Russ Lavaja. BYU will also have to replace the production of freshman All-American Ben Patch, who plans to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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