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The 16th-ranked BYU women’s volleyball team hadn’t played a match in the Smith Fieldhouse for over a month due to a long road swing and pair of canceled matches. A socially-distanced crowd of 550 greeted the team on Saturday and the Cougars rewarded their fans with an impressive 3-0 sweep (25-19, 25-21, 25-17) against No. 21 San Diego, the second time this week BYU topped the Toreros.

“The ROC (Roar of Cougars student section) was here, the cheerleaders were here and the energy in the Smith Fieldhouse was great, especially when there were some long rallies or we did something well,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “I thought it got pretty electric so it gave us some energy.”

The Cougars put up some great offensive numbers, hitting .353 for the match. But it was BYU’s defense that carried the day, holding San Diego to a .130 hitting percentage and outblocking the visitors 12.0 to 4.0.

“We were playing scrappy,” sophomore setter Whitney Bower said. “We were really motivated to not let the ball hit the floor. The more digs we got the more excitement we would get. We kept the ball alive and made some great plays.”

Bower finished with 36 assists and added two aces, three kills, six digs and three blocks, including a pair of great plays at the net to win jousts with taller Toreros.

“Whitney has an incredible ability to see the game and to be in the right spots at the right time,” Olmstead said. “Sometimes she gets overlooked because of her size. We know she can be physical at the net. She was very physical and assertive at the net.”

Set 1 was close and tied at 16 when BYU surged. A 4-0 run that featured an Erin Livingston kill and a tandem block from Kennedy Eschenberg and Bower pushed BYU to a 20-16 lead. Taylen Ballard-Nixon went down the line to get to set point and a USD hitting error finished it with a 25-19 win for the Cougars.

BYU took a 13-8 lead in Set 2 on back-to-back aces from Bower and led by as many as seven points. San Diego closed to 23-20 but the Cougars won a long rally, highlighted by Bower’s one-handed stab flying out of bounds to keep the ball in play and a tandem block from Kate Grimmer and Leilani Dodson for a 24-20 lead. Dodson got the kill at match point for a 25-21 win and a 2-0 lead in the match.

The Cougars raced to an 8-1 lead in Set 3 and it was 16-8 when Eschenberg and Bower teamed up for a block. BYU held USD to a .037 hitting percentage and Ballard-Nixon got the winner for a 25-17 win and the match.

Grimmer hit .600 and led BYU with 14 kills. The 6-foot-5 Eschenberg had a terrific match with 12 kills and zero hitting errors (.632) and eight block assists.

“Kennedy is always working on her craft,” Olmstead said. “She’s always asking questions and listens to feedback. She’s hungry to get better and I love how assertive she was, especially in the first set.”

Roxie Wiblin paced San Diego (11-3) with 12 kills.

BYU is 11-1 in West Coast Conference play after splitting two matches earlier this season with No. 22 Pepperdine. The Waves (12-1) will travel to San Diego for a pair of matches next week. The NCAA Tournament has been reduced to 48 teams this season (32 automatic births, 16 at-large spots) so earning the league’s automatic bid to the tournament would alleviate anxious moments sweating out an at-large spot on Selection Sunday.

“I love that we put ourselves in good position to compete in our conference,” Olmstead said. “We had a great week of prep for San Diego. These young women have come excited to practice and excited to get better every day.”

BYU goes to Saint Mary’s for two matches next week before finishing the regular season with two home matches against Santa Clara on March 30 and 31.

Follow Darnell Dickson on Twitter @darnellwrites or e-mail him at ddickson@heraldextra.com.

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