With top-ranked Hawaii losing in the semifinals of the Big West Tournament and guaranteed an at-large bid, there could be no messing around for BYU in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation finals.
A win would secure the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament while a loss would leave the Cougars’ fate up to a selection committee.
No. 1 seed BYU took care of business on Saturday in the Smith Fieldhouse, surviving a close first set and then running away with a 25-23, 25-15, 25-19 victory against No. 3 seed Pepperdine.
“It feels awesome,” BYU senior outside hitter Zach Eschenberg said. “It’s so surreal and so exciting. Every guy on our team worked so hard for this moment. We put in a lot of time so it feels really good to get to see the fruits of our labor and that we get to continue on.”
It was the Cougars eighth MPSF Tournament title and first since winning in 2018.
“For me personally this is the biggest one,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “There are a lot of things behind the scenes with the team that people don’t know or hear about. We shed a few tears in the team room after the match. Each championship is unique and it’s hard to compare. Looking at what these guys have gone through and the uncertainty … We got to play and it means a lot.”
Eschenberg was fantastic and led BYU with 13 kills with just two errors (.550) while tournament MVP Gabi Garcia Fernandez overcame a slow start to finish with 10 kills (.333), three aces and four block assists.
Middle blocker Filipe de Brito Ferreira helped BYU to 13.0 team blocks to just 1.0 for Pepperdine. Ferreira had six kills with zero errors (.857) and led the Cougars with seven block assists.
“Filipe brought a lot of really great energy,” Olmstead said. “He was really dialed in on the scouting report. We talked again right before the start of the match about some key things we wanted him to do. He was flying all over the place.”
Setter Wil Stanley finished with 38 assists, six digs and five block assists while leading BYU to a .471 hitting percentage.
“Wil did exactly what we asked him to do, which is distribute the ball evenly all over the court,” Olmstead said. “We asked him to get the middles involved at the right time and he did that.”
Set 1 was tied 19 times as the two teams battled back and forth. Eschenberg’s kill gave BYU a 24-23 lead and a tandem block from Ferreira and Fernandez ended it at 25-23.
BYU was practically perfect in Set 2 and raced to an 8-0 lead, highlighted by a tough pass by Ferreira that led to an Eschenberg smash. The Cougars sided out at 100% (16 of 16) and hit a remarkable .933 (14 kills on 15 swings, zero errors) in cruising to a 25-15 victory.
BYU went on a nice run in Set 3 to take a 20-15 lead thanks to a brilliant play by Stanley. He chased down a deflection deep into the backcourt and passed the ball back over his head, setting up Eschenberg perfectly for a kill.
Garcia Fernandez executed a sneaky roll shot over the Pepperdine block to reach match point and the Cougars triple block roofed the Waves next attack for the 25-19 win and the sweep.
“I was most proud of that first set,” Olmstead said. “Our backs were pushed against the wall and we stayed in it. We knew we were going to get pushed. Pepperdine had a good game plan and they played error-free volleyball early. We kind of made some uncharacteristic errors but we came around and saw out block get going.”
Eschenberg and Stanley joined Fernandez on the All-MPSF Tournament team along with Grand Canyon’s Camden Gianni, UCLA’s Cole Ketrzynski and Pepperdine’s Jacob Steele and Austin Wilmot.
The seeding and pairings for the 2021 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Tournament will be announced Sunday at 11 a.m. MT on ncaa.com.
Hawaii (15-1), which was undefeated before the Big West semifinal loss and ranked No. 1 in the polls since March 1, will likely receive the No. 1 seed. BYU (19-3) and Lewis (20-2), which won the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association title, are both in consideration for the No. 2 spot that includes a bye to the semifinals. Penn State (21-3) and Belmont Abbey (15-7) earned automatic bids by winning their conference tournament titles. The winner of the Big West Tournament (UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego) will also earn an automatic bid. The other at-large spot will be decided between Pepperdine (13-6), UCLA (15-6) and Loyola-Chicago (15-6).
The Final Four will be held at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, beginning May 6.