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BYU volleyball: Cougs, UC Irvine to meet, with national title on the line

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BYU players celebrate a point over Penn State in the third set of their NCAA Final Four college volleyball tournament semifinal at UCLA in Los Angeles Thursday, May 2, 2013. BYU won, 25-21, 25-16, 25-22. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

By jon gold

Special to The Tribune

First published May 03 2013 04:44PM
Updated Dec 7, 2013 11:31PM

Los Angeles • How do you plan for a team you’ve been scheming for all year?

When they’re in your thoughts and dreams and blueprints, when they’re the team you expect to face with it all on the line, when all along, you’ve expected them to be the last bump (and set and spike) on the road to the championship?

You do what you’ve been doing all along.

And you cross your fingers.

"BYU is a team that we’ve been planning to play in this moment since last year," said UC Irvine men’s volleyball coach David Kniffin, whose Anteaters will square off against the Cougars on Saturday in the NCAA Men’s Volleyball championship at 7 p.m. MT in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. "What BYU has coming at us right now is a very hot offense. Offensively, they are just a really tough team to stop."

The top-seeded Cougars (26-4) thoroughly dominated Penn State, 3-0, on Thursday night in the semifinals as they claimed a 12.5-2 advantage in blocks.

With Taylor Sander and Ben Patch in full attack mode — Sander had 17 kills, with a .556 attack percentage, and seven digs; Patch had 12 kills, five digs and 3.5 blocks — BYU cruised through most of the match until a back-and-forth third game. No problem: Sander had nine kills as the Cougars came back from a 19-15 deficit.

"We can take some confidence from the fact that we were in a really tough spot being down in the third," BYU coach Chris McCown said. "Our team understands we can team through some of these tough moments."

Against UC Irvine, there should be some.

The defending-champion Anteaters (24-7), who steamrolled Loyola-Chicago in three games in the other semifinal, have won eight of their last nine — the lone loss coming in the MPSF semifinals to Long Beach State.

Winners of three titles in six years, UC Irvine claimed the preseason No. 1 ranking, just ahead of No. 2 BYU.

Just as UC Irvine anticipated a championship matchup with the Cougars, BYU awaited the Anteaters.

"Two best teams in the country in preseason," Patch said, "I think they nailed it when they said it was going to be us, and here we are."

The Cougars seek their third win over UC Irvine this season, the two losses sandwiching a then-nation-leading 11-match winning streak for the Anteaters.

BYU expects a different look from UC Irvine — McCown said the Cougars were "kind of pushing the reset button" — but will counter anything unexpected with a potent lineup that also includes Russ Lavaja, Josue Rivera, Devin Young and Ryan Boyce. This time, much more than pride or seeding is on the line for the two foe-turned-fortune-tellers.

As they expected all year.

"Whether these are the two teams that should be playing the finals, it’s the two teams that I envisioned playing in the finals," Kniffin said.

"That’s something we’ve been training for all year. The nice thing about going in and playing BYU this time of year is that we’re exactly where I thought we’d be. We’re the number two seed going in and we haven’t shown all our cards."

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