No. 6 Gauchos Drop Five-Set Heartbreaker to BYU in MPSF Semis

Photo by Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo
Photo by Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

PROVO, Utah – Fifth-seed UC Santa Barbara fought back from 2-0 deficit in Thursday night's MPSF Semifinal at Smith Fieldhouse, but ultimately fell in a five-set heartbreaker to No. 1 BYU, 25-18, 25-22, 23-25, 24-26, 15-12.

After hitting just .131 in the first two sets, the Gauchos appeared to be a totally different team down the stretch, hitting .447 over the final three games. It wasn't enough however to overcome a consistent Cougars attack that hit .388 for the match and received 32 kills on 50 swings from opposite Ben Patch.

The loss snaps a six-match winning streak for the Gauchos (20-10), who reached the semis after a five-set triumph at Stanford last weekend. BYU extended their own win streak to eight and will now play for the MPSF title and an automatic bid into the six-team NCAA Tournament on Saturday night.

"The guys fought like heck to get back into the match, I was real proud of them," said UCSB head coach Rick McLaughlin. "BYU was just a little too much for us in the end, they had one guy we couldn't stop."

UCSB had a number of standout performances of their own, most notably from All-Tournament pick Ryan Hardy who had a career-high 15 kills on just 18 swings and libero Parker Boehle, who notched 16 digs and solidified the Gaucho back row. Every player on the UCSB side of the court contributed though, with other notables including Jonah Seif's season-high 57 assists, Matt Marsh's 15 kills, Austin Kingi's 12-kill, 10-dig double-double, Henri Cherry's 13 kills from the middle, and Hayden Boehle's 12 kills.

"The seniors have been playing with urgency the past seven matches," said McLaughlin. "They've really led this surge over the past few weeks."

Seif opened the match with great chemistry with his middles, as Hardy and Seif combined to put down UCSB's first five kills of the match. But BYU eventually got going and pulled away with a 6-1 run that made it 14-9. The Gauchos didn't let them pull away too far though, bouncing back with a 5-2 run of their own capped off by a Seif-Hardy block of a Brenden Sander attack from the left side that made it 16-14 and forced a BYU timeout. That was as close as UCSB would get however, as the Cougars came out of the timeout with a 9-4 set-clinching run.

BYU went up 2-0 after a second set in which they were hot early and late, opening up with a 10-5 lead before closing the game on a 6-3 run. The Gauchos played their best volleyball in the middle, cutting the Cougars' lead to two at 18-16 on a solo stuff at the net from Cherry followed by a long swing from Jake Langlois which forced a BYU timeout. The Gauchos kept it rolling after the break, tying the match on another long swing by the Cougars and an easy kill for Cherry off a BYU overpass of a Hardy float serve. 

Marsh went off in game three to lead UCSB to a 25-23 win, racking up six kills and helping UCSB to a 6-1 lead from the service line. Parker Boehle was also instrumental in the frame, notching eight digs and helping extend rallies throughout. Marsh and Hayden Boehle both got kills off the block to put the Gauchos up 3-0 before a pair of monster serves from Marsh pushed the advantage to 5-0, first on a Seif kill of an overpass and then on an ace off BYU libero Erik Sikes.

The Cougars would eventually battle back, scoring three straight points to make it 10-8 and force a UCSB timeout. That margin would more or less hold up until Hardy and Kingi moved to their left to block a Patch attack to make it 20-17. Following a late charge from BYU, UCSB won the set when the Cougars went into the net trying to block a Kingi swing.

The two teams were deadlocked for practically the entire fourth set, as there were 14 ties in that frame alone. UCSB ran an extremely balanced offense in the fourth, with a .488 hitting percentage and five different players knocking down three or more kills. Seif stepped up big-time for UCSB when it counted, dumping the first pass for a kill that gave UCSB its first set point at 24-23 and then notching another kill moments later to make it 25-24. The second game point turned out to be all they needed, as Patch hit into the net to send it to the fifth.

Things started off tight in the fifth as well, but BYU went up for good when a block and a wide Kingi attack made it 7-5 in favor of the hosts. A few points later, Leo Durkin's float serve fell just inside the end line for an ace that made it 10-7. The Cougars held that lead steady, ending the match on a Brenden Sander kill.