The BYU men's volleyball team had a completely different experience in Saturday's match against No. 13 UC San Diego than they did in a 3-1 win over No. 1 Irvine on Friday.
With less on the line and a Cougar men's basketball game taking place just up the street, BYU had to deal with a smaller crowd (2,301 instead of 5,038) and diminished energy.
But the Cougars still had plenty of talent — and that was all they really needed.
Led by senior middle blocker Russ Lavaja's big-time performance at the net, BYU kept their record perfect against the Tritons as it recorded the 3-0 victory (25-15, 25-19, 25-23).
"That was not how we wanted to play overall but we were still able to get the win," Lavaja said. "Obviously we’ll take the ‘W’ but we would’ve liked to play better. We know we can play at a higher level."
Cougar head coach Chris McGown said he was pleased with the way his squad responded after the intensity of the win over the Anteaters, although they lost some of their edge later in the match.
"I was impressed with the way we came out," he said. "There was the potential to be flat emotionally but we came out emotionally charged and acted as though every point was huge."
Much of the BYU success was due to its dominance at the net. The Cougars registered 16.5 blocks for the match (including seven in the first game alone), while San Diego only managed four.
"We executed our game plan well tonight," Lavaja said. "We just could’ve brought more emotion to the later sets."
Lavaja tallied eight blocks to lead the stonewall effort that kept the Triton offense from finding consistent success.
Offensively, BYU was led by junior All-American outside hitter Taylor Sander, who finished with 11 kills.
"We did a nice job defensively," McGown said. "They had a tough time killing the ball against us tonight."
Any concern about a BYU letdown evaporated in the opening frame as the Cougars hit an impressive .579, had no hitting errors and were perfect on their side-out opportunities (15-of-15).
That consistency, along with the blocking, allowed BYU to roll to the 25-15 and set the tone for the contest.
"We made a couple of little mistakes where we had chances to turn points that we didn’t," McGown said. "For the most part, it was a really good performance, but it can be hard to maintain that focus."
While the Cougars weren't quite a dominant in Set No. 2, they still had plenty of firepower — and got some help from the Tritons.
A series of three San Diego errors sandwiched around a kill and a block by BYU junior middle blocker Devin Young gave the Cougars a 5-0 run early to build the lead.
The Tritons made a small push of their own late in the frame but by then BYU was too far in front to be threatened. A Sander kill put the finishing touches on the 25-19 win.
Things didn't go quite as easily for the home team in the third game as San Diego got its first two leads of the match (3-1 and 6-4), but the Cougars put together another 5-0 run that included a pair of blocks to regain the advantage.
This time the Tritons refused to go quietly and came back to tie the game at 15-15. But BYU, after a quick timeout, scored five straight points again with Lavaja making it happen from the service line.
"I was missing a lot of serves," he said. "When that happens, you try to continue what you are doing and feed off of what you are doing well. Then you can bring the positive play over to other areas of the game. Now I just need to continue doing it."
San Diego had no answer and the Cougars sealed the sweep with a tip kill by Lavaja — including a stare as the ball dropped to the ground.
"I knew it was going to drop because they thought I was going to smash that thing," Lavaja said. "It wasn’t the ideal finish, but there is always another game."
With BYU having taken down No. 1 Irvine and No. 2 Stanford getting swept by USC for its first loss, the Cougars might by the new No. 1 team in the country when the next polls come out — which could be a mixed blessing.
"We need to be comfortable with the target," McGown said. "We’re going to use it as motivation to keep getting better. We’re in a position where wonderful things can happen."
BYU (5-1) now gets a week off before hosting Long Beach State on Feb. 1.