LOS ANGELES — The national championship dreams of the Penn State men’s volleyball team fell short Thursday night.
Brigham Young proved to be too physical and too talented.
The Cougars will look for their fourth national title and first since 2004 after beating the Nittany Lions 25-21, 25-16, 22 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.
“We scrapped hard,” said Nittany Lion coach Mark Pavlik. “There was a great effort by them to just keep coming back. We just don’t have the physicality to last through an entire game right now ... and that’s what BYU does really well.”
BYU will play defending champion California-Irvine in Saturday’s championship match. The Anteaters, who have won three of the last six national titles, outlasted first-time semifinalist Loyola of Chicago 26-24, 25-18, 29-27.
The No. 1 Cougars were powered by All-American outside hitter Taylor Sandor, who had 17 kills, seven digs and three blocks; and All-American opposite Ben Patch, who had 12 kills, five digs, six blocks and a pair of aces.
“Taylor’s one of the top young players in the country right now,” Pavlik said. “He does everything very, very well. You’ve got to find ways to slow him down, but you know he’s going to come up with a big kill here or there.”
They were part of a solid hitting night for BYU, which hit .345 as a team. Sander had just two errors on 27 swings to hit .556. Patch also had just two errors and hit .370.
Penn State got plenty of kills from the Russell brothers, with 13 for Aaron and eight for Peter, and Nick Goodell added nine kills, but little from anyone else. Aaron Russell also had two aces, Taylor Hammond gave out 28 assists and Connor Curry picked up eight digs.
The Nittany Lions appeared ready to send the match to a fourth set, taking control of the third early at 7-2 and still holding a lead at 19-15. But Sander caught fire with four kills down the stretch and Penn State could not maintain the rare crispness it showed to grab the lead as the Cougars won 10 of the final 13 points.
“Our passing broke down and all of a sudden our offensive rhythm got a little tentative,” Pavlik said. “We weren’t able to haul off and hit the ball. To their credit, they made a couple nice plays off balls that skipped off the block that they tracked down and were able to convert.”
BYU took control of the first set with a 7-2 run early, then maintained the margin with a huge 7-0 blocking advantage. Penn State hit just .080 in the frame against the Cougars’ .375 clip.
It was more of the same in the second set, again with BYU’s dominance at the net and from the service line. The Cougars had a 4.5-0 margin in blocks in the set, and Penn State was even worse in hitting at just .067.
The serve-receive game was off to take the Nittany Lion middle blockers out of the offense. The trio of Ian Hendries, Nick Turko and Matt Seifert combined for just one kill (from Seifert) and two blocks (both from Hendries in the third set). BYU finished with a 6-3 edge in aces.
“We just didn’t pass nearly well enough to get our middles involved,” Pavlik said. “They do a really nice job of altering their serving rhythm. They keep you off balance. They serve the seams really well. Peter and Aaron had some brotherly moments out there.”
BYU also got seven blocks from Devin Young, a product of Peters Township near Pittsburgh, along with 18 assists for Tyler Heap and 16 for Ryan Boyce.
Penn State, which was outblocked 12.5-2, hasn’t been in the national finals since falling to Stanford in 2010.
“The men’s game is won and lost at the net and BYU’s always had a strong blocking team,” Pavlik said. “Most of those blocks came in transition early on. We wanted to come in and be physical, we knew that we were going to trade off some blocks ... but we needed to swing at balls. You just know they’re going to be in front of you and you’ve got to do your best to deal with them.”
Notes: Penn State has never beaten BYU in the postseason in four meetings. ... BYU coach Chris McGown was named AVCA national Coach of the Year. ... Penn State had not been swept in a national semifinal since 2005 — by the host Bruins the last time the tournament had been held at UCLA. ... In the first match, Kevin Tillie had 14 kills, seven digs and four blocks to lead UC-Irvine back to the finals. Colin Mehring and Connor Hughes each added nine kills for the Anteaters (24-7), who hit .500 for the match. Cody Caldwell’s 12 kills and Joseph Smalzer’s 11 kills led the Ramblers (22-10). ... Saturday’s final will be shown on ESPNU.