Penn State Volleyball

BYU, Ohio State book date in championship match

Brenden Sander made a name for himself Thursday night.

Ohio State, and the nation’s best player, are standing in the way.

Paced by an incredible hitting night from Sander, Brigham Young knocked off Long Beach State 25-21, 23-25, 25-19, 25-18 Thursday night in the semifinals of the National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championships at Rec Hall.

“It was just a whole team effort,” Sander said. “We got out there and played really, really hard.”

Much later in the evening, AVCA National Player of the Year Nicolas Szerszen fired an ace on match point to wrap up the Buckeyes’ 22-25, 25-22, 25-21, 18-16 marathon win over UCLA.

The Buckeyes (30-3), who have won 22 straight matches, are in the finals for the first time since winning their only title in 2011 in Rec Hall.

“Sometimes it comes down to one or two plays right at the end,” Ohio State coach Pete Hanson said. “Our young men in scarlet stepped up and made a couple plays.”

BYU (27-3) will make its sixth appearance in the finals, seeking its fourth title and first since 2004.

The finals are set for 8 p.m. Saturday.

BYU saw a huge performance from its sophomore outside hitter Sander, who ruled the night with 14 kills on 24 error-free swings to hit .583.

“He was awesome,” said setter Leo Durkin, who had 42 assists and four blocks. “As a setter you’re always looking for the hot hand out there. … He was doing a great job hitting late middle, hitting high off hands, deep.”

Having to play in the shadow of his older brother Taylor, who also played at BYU and is now on the U.S. national team, Brenden’s error-free hitting line in an NCAA semifinal was something his brother didn’t do.

“He’s been putting up these numbers for months now – and he’s Brenden,” coach Shawn Olmstead said. “He loves his brother too, and they’re a great family.”

Ben Patch added 13 kills, the last of which sealed the semifinal win, but he was hotter early in the match before Sander took over.

“They’ve got two All-Americans on the left side,” Long Beach coach Alan Knipe said. “We got to one. We didn’t get to the other so much. That’s kind of the way it is. Brenden had a great night.”

Michael Hatch had five blocks, Jake Langlois served up three aces and the Cougars hit .337 as a team.

The 49ers (24-8) got 23 kills from TJ DeFalco, the AVCA National Newcomer of the Year, who had a heavy workload with 47 swings.

“He’s grown so much as a volleyball player,” Knipe said. “Tonight was a very good example of a young man who’s just starting to show what he’s really capable of. This big moment, this big stage, he didn’t have the easiest night.”

Knipe’s team also got 10 kills and four blocks from Kyle Ensing, four blocks from Bryce Yould, and 45 assists from Josh Tuaniga, who guided the team to .244 hitting.

The drama lasted right to the final point in the nightcap that lasted 2 hours, 21 minutes.

Szerszen, a native of France, put down 15 kills to go with his five aces to wrap up the Ohio State victory. Miles Johnson led with 20 kills and 10 digs, Driss Guessous had five blocks, Gabriel Domecus also posted 10 digs and Christy Blough gave out 43 assists.

“It’s unbelievable, honestly.” Buckeye Christian Francescho said. “... This has been a dream since we started the game. It’s kind of a surreal moment.”

Jake Arnitz led UCLA with 18 kills in a balanced offensive effort. JT Hatch added 13 kills, with 11 each for Oliver Martin and Mitch Stahl. Hatch also had a dozen digs and two aces, Martin added five blocks and Stahl posted four, and Hagen Smith and Micah Ma’a delivered 30 and 29 assists, respectively.

The Bruins were on the brink of elimination, down 13-11 in the fifth set, but a big kill from the back row by Jake Arnitz was followed by a stuff from Stahl and Arnitz to tie it. Then Shahl hammered a kill off the Buckeye block to land match point, but a Blough kill tied it again.

“Late in the fifth set, I think all of us believed that we were going to come out on top,” Stahl said. “(We) had the momentum our way and things were looking good.”

UCLA had another match point before the Buckeyes finally pulled ahead to set up Szerszen’s final serve, which was shanked into the bleachers — into the Ohio State fan section.

“We don’t tell Szerszen anything,” Hanson said. “I tell him to hit it hard and good things are going to happen. He’s got the green light to do what he does best — that’s hit rockets at people, hopefully make them pass it into the bleachers. There’s not much strategy in that play.”

Notes: The matches drew 2,224 fans despite the lack of the hometown Nittany Lions. Tuesday’s play-in matches drew just 550 fans. … UCLA setter Hagan Smith is a third-generation Bruin. His father, Sinjin, was a beach legend and member of the 1996 Olympic team. ... Saturday’s match will be shown live on ESPN2.

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @gordoncdt