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No. 2 BYU holds off Lewis, sets up national championship showdown with No. 1 Hawaii

Setter Wil Stanley and MPSF Player of the Year Gabi Garcia Fernandez rise up when they have to, lead BYU to 3-1 win over Lewis in hard-fought semifinal match in Columbus, Ohio

BYU’s Gabi Garcia Fernandez (5) and teammates celebrate during their NCAA semifinal match against Lewis on Thursday, May 6, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. BYU won two sets to one to advance to the title match Saturday against Hawaii.
BYU Photo

COLUMBUS, Ohio — For two impressive sets on Thursday night, the BYU’s men’s volleyball team looked like the best in the land plowing through Lewis in a NCAA Men’s Volleyball Tournament semifinal match at the Covelli Center.

But the Flyers had other ideas. The squad from Romeoville, Illinois, refused to buckle against overwhelming odds. Fourth-seed Lewis won the marathon third set and gave No. 2 seed BYU all it wanted in the fourth before finally succumbing to Gabi Garcia Fernandez and BYU’s array of weapons.

So the Cougars will move on to face No. 1 seed Hawaii on Saturday night, knowing they will have to duplicate those first two sets, and avoid another performance like they had in the third, to stay with the Rainbow Warriors.

Thursday’s scores were 25-22, 25-15, 26-28 and 25-20. But that doesn’t tell half the story, coach Shawn Olmstead said after the stirring win.

“What a match,” Olmstead said. “Fun match to be a part of. Credit to Lewis for hanging in there, being down 2-0. That takes a lot of guts and will and determination, and they did that. They turned the tide. Even more credit to our guys for fighting through that lull, too.”

The Cougars improved to 20-3 and advanced to their third national championship match in six years; Lewis fell to 21-3 and goes back to Illinois wondering what might have been if a few key points in the fourth set went its way.

“Super close third set and then a really, really close fourth set,” Olmstead said. “I was proud of our guys for coming around. We had a few discussions with a few of them, personally, in timeouts or different moments. We were like, ‘Hey, it is going to come. It will come around, and they did just that.’”

MPSF Player of the Year Garcia Fernandez had a match-high 17 kills, and none was bigger than his blast late in the fourth set that gave the Cougars a 23-19 lead after a Lewis timeout.

With BYU leading the fourth set just 20-19, Olmstead turned to reserve Jon Stanley for some serving help off the bench, and the Hawaiian delivered — just as his brother had been delivering the entire match as BYU’s super-skilled setter.

Wil Stanley had 43 assists, eight digs and five blocks in an MVP-like performance.

“He is just a leader,” said Garcia Fernandez. “He is one of the best leaders I have had the honor to play with. … He is an amazing setter, and he doesn’t get as much credit as he should.

“He will go down as one of the most legendary setters in this program’s history. So, real proud of him.”

Davide Gardini and Zach Eschenberg added 11 kills apiece and Felipe de Brito Ferreira added six kills and six blocks.

Ryan Coenen led Lewis with 13 kills and Tyler Mitchem added 10.

“We could not be this good without what Wil does,” Gardini said.

The Cougars got off to a blazing start in the first set and led 10-4 after a Garcia Fernandez kill. The Cougars were hitting .429 at that point, and Lewis had yet to record a kill.

But the Flyers righted themselves and got within a point twice late in the set on consecutive kills by Mitchem.

BYU finished hitting .400 in the set, while Lewis hit .407. The Flyers committed a whopping nine service errors in the set.

BYU never trailed in the second set, either, jumping to a quick 7-3 lead and coasting to the 10-point win. The Cougars hit .400 in the set, while the Flyers started to wilt. They hit .000 in the set, continuing a string of mis-hits and service errors.

After going the entire first set without a block, the Cougars recorded three in the second, led by de Brito Ferreira and Stanley.

As Olmstead said, referring to the two teams as “super similar,” Lewis wouldn’t go away.

The third set was tight throughout, as the Flyers finally got an early lead and it swung back and forth. Service errors late in the set hurt the Cougars.

A Garcia Fernandez kill evened the set at 26-26 and the Cougars fought off for set points, but Coenen came up with a kill and TJ Murray and Kevin Caulling teamed for a block for the win, 28-26.

“That was an awakening for ourselves,” Garcia Fernandez said of the lost set.

The Cougars finished with 21 service errors, something they will need to clean up before Saturday.

“Our serving went down a little bit, and Lewis fed off that, got some energy,” Gardini said.

The fourth set was another nail-biter, as neither team led by more than three points until BYU pulled away at the end. The Cougars won it won a service error, after some late heroics from Gardini, Garcia Fernandez, and, of course, Jon Stanley.

The Cougars finished hitting .354, which is going to win most matches, regardless of the opponent. Lewis hit .238 and also struggled at the service line at times, committing 22 errors there.

“In these moments you are just happy for these guys. In athletics you are going to play long enough that you are going to be able to celebrate some wonderful wins and battle through some tough losses. Tonight, just proud of the guys for sticking with it,” Olmstead said.

Lewis wasn’t bad at that aspect of the competition, either.

Hawaii 3, UC Santa Barbara 0

The No. 1 seed barely broke a sweat in eliminating upstart UCSB, winning by scores of 25-21, 25-18 and 25-23.

The Rainbow Warriors (16-1) recorded 13.5 blocks and got double-digit kills from Rado Parapunov, Patrick Gasman and Colton Coswell in sweeping the Gauchos (16-5).