Watch the MPSF semifinal match between BYU and UCLA live on BYUtv at 10pm ET/8pm MT. Watch live online by clicking here.
That's what Thursday's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinal between #1 BYU and #4 UCLA is. The Cougars earned home court throughout the conference tournament by winning the MPSF by three matches on March 30, the earliest a team has done that in the league's existence. The Cougars host the semifinals and final this week in Provo.
"We are excited to play at home. We have a great crowd," said senior setter Ryan Boyce. "We feel confident and we are ready to go Thursday."
BYU split the regular season series with UCLA with each team sweeping the other at home. In fact, each team was only swept one time this season and it was against each other. UCLA started the season 9-8 but has won 10 of 11 since. The Cougars started 8-3 and have won 12 of 14. The last team to beat BYU was UCLA.
The Bruins swept Pepperdine Saturday night while BYU required a comeback down 2-1 against #8 seed Hawaii to win in five sets. (Watch the Hawaii vs BYU match here.)
"It was tough. [Hawaii] is a really good team. We had to play our best and we barely pulled it out but a win's a win," said BYU junior outside hitter Taylor Sander on True Blue this week. (See the whole interview here.)
The Cougars and Bruins have two of the top offenses in the conference, ranking first and second in hitting percentage. BYU is tops in blocks while UCLA is tops in aces. It will be a matter of who can contain the other team's strengths.
"We're going to have to shut them down offensively," said Sander. "We're going to have to scrap on defense and play our volleyball."
"We have a sense of urgency," said BYU freshman opposite Ben Patch. "I feel like [UCLA] is the team to beat."
That urgency is even higher for UCLA, who is playing with its season on the line. The NCAA tournament fields just four teams -- three from automatic qualifiers from the MPSF, MIVA and EIVA tournaments and a single at-large bid which will more than likely go to BYU if it loses Thursday or UC Irvine/Long Beach State if the Cougars win the MPSF tournament. The NCAA tournament is being held at UCLA. The Cougars hope to avoid UCLA on their home court for what would be the national title match.
"That's fueling our fire a little bit. We want to knock them out," said Sander.
"We want to win the tournament. It would be very nice to knock [UCLA] out of the chance to get there. We're just focused on winning the match," said Boyce. "We just want to win Thursday night."
BYU has history on its side. Each of the three seasons BYU won the MPSF regular season title it won the NCAA title (99, 01, 04). The Cougars have proven to be the #1 team in the country but need to play very well against UCLA to advance to the MPSF championship match Saturday night.
"It's a tough challenge. It's probably the biggest home court advantage in the country," tweeted Bruin head coach John Speraw following UCLA's win against Pepperdine. BYU has the led the nation in attendance for several years and has a serving advantage at altitude.
"They've got a great team," said Sander. "They have a great coach. They've been playing really good volleyball. We're going to have to play our best this weekend in front of our fans to move to the finals."
"We didn't play super well," said Boyce, referring to last Saturday's match. "[Hawaii] played with nothing to lose. Thursday night is going to be the exact same. UCLA is fighting for their lives and we're fighting for ours. We're all super excited to get going."
Watch Thursday's match at 10pm ET/8pm MT on BYUtv or at this link on byutvsports.com. If the Cougars play in the title match on Saturday it will be broadcast on BYUtv as well -- at 9pm ET/7pm MT.
Other News & Notes
With two more total blocks senior Russ Lavaja will become just the third Cougar ever to record four seasons of 100+ total blocks, joining Ryan Millar and Futi Tavana -- numbers one and two all-time in total blocks ahead of Lavaja.
Senior setter Ryan Boyce is a fan favorite for his Pringles-can-looking mustache. When asked about it he said, "It's in post-season form", and would likely get a trim before Thursday night's match.
Taylor Sander & Ben Patch were named AVCA 1st team All-Americans. Patch is the newcomer of the year. Russ Lavaja made the 2nd team.
The Player of the Year will be announced May 1 and Coach of the Year May 2.
The NCAA tournament semifinals will be webcast on NCAA.com and not on TV next Thursday, May 2. The title match is on May 4 on ESPNU.
UCLA head coach John Speraw is the only person in NCAA men's volleyball history to win a national championship as a player, head coach and assistant coach. He is also the current USA indoor men's volleyball coach in preparation for the 2016 Olympics.