BYU's men's volleyball team faced the steepest of climbs in five-set wins over Hawaii and UCLA before getting to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title match Saturday night at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo.
With a crucial ace from junior All-American Taylor Sander, the Cougars' fortunes changed dramatically.
Sander helped his squad fight through extra points in the first set, then laid down a scorching ace to give No. 1 BYU a 28-26 opening win as the Cougars swept third-seeded Long Beach State, 28-26, 25-22, 25-22 to win their first MPSF title since 2003.
Ben Patch led BYU (25-4) with 18 kills, 11 digs and two aces, and Sander added 15 kills and two aces. Senior setter Ryan Boyce dished out 43 assists, and Devin Young supplied seven kills on only 10 attempts.
The Cougars clinched the league's automatic berth to next week's NCAA Tournament, which will be held at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The Cougars will be joined by Penn State, which used a match-high 14 kills from Peter Russell to win its 15th-straight EIVA Tournament title, as well as MIVA champion Loyola, which rallied by top-seeded Lewis to win its first tourney title in 20 years.
Long Beach State (24-8) was led by All-American Taylor Crabb, who had 16 kills and five digs, and Dalton Ammerman, who laid out 13 kills. The 49ers outblocked the Cougars, 16-11, led by Taylor Gregory's five block assists.
But after struggling in the first set, BYU barely trailed save for a 3-0 deficit to start the second set. The Cougars grabbed a 5-4 lead following a timeout by coach Chris McGown, and only trailed one other time en route to the 25-22 win.
Sander, Young and Josue Rivera earned all-tournament team recognition after the win. The BYU trio was joined by Long Beach State's Crabb and Connor Albright, as well as UC Irvine's Collin Mehring and UCLA's Gonzalo Quiroga.
The Cougars will look to become the 16th national champion from the MPSF in the conference's 20 years, as well as BYU's fourth national title (1999, 2001, 2003).
Matchups and seeding will be announced Sunday evening, when BYU, Loyola and Penn State will learn the lone at-large addition to the four-team NCAA Tournament. Long Beach State and UC Irvine are considered the top candidates for that berth.