SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Honoring the final regular season match for seniors Evan Licht, Matt Hanley, Ryan Thompson, and Chad Kingi, the fifth-ranked UC Santa Barbara Gauchos upset No. 3 BYU in dominant fashion (21-25, 25-15, 25-22, 28-26). The win — in combination with UC Irvine's loss tonight to Stanford — sets the Gauchos up to host a playoff match in Santa Barbara next Saturday. This marks the first time since 2007 the Gauchos have hosted a playoff match.
The emotion was high from the get-go. Rob Gym was standing-room only as a season-high 1,800 fans electrified the building. UCSB pounded away at BYU's defense, going on an early 10-3 point run capped off by two back-to-back aces by Jonah Seif. Seif finished the night with three services aces total. BYU returned the favor by sniping a pair of aces past the Gauchos before three key blocks late in the set secured BYU the win.
The Gauchos kept the second set tight against the Cougars. Weston Nielsen led UCSB's attack in the set by slamming seven kills at .444 clip. His kill at 12-5 capped off a five-point Gaucho surge forcing a BYU timeout while another kill at 17-12 helped stall the Cougars' building momentum. Nielsen finished the night with 18 kills at a smooth .500.
Defensively, Licht and Jake Staahl each were responsible for a solo block. Licht also assisted in three other blocks while Staahl assisted in one. Staahl's solo block to put the Gauchos up definitively 23-15 in the second set was followed up by an authoritative kill at the net off a botched BYU return from a service delivered by Thompson.
Tied at one set apiece, the third set was a nerve-racking nail-bitter until deep in the set. Licht started off the set with a solid service ace, one of his total three for the match. However, it was Licht's exclamation mark of a strike that drilled BYU's libero for the point to tie the set at 19 that reignited the Gauchos late. Further, the double block by Thompson and Nielsen that put the Gauchos ahead 22-21 made Rob Gym absolutely erupt. Despite giving a point back to BYU after their timeout, Nielsen was able to strike for the final two kills to win the set.
The fourth set followed a similar pattern to the third with an early Licht service ace, only to see the well-matched teams go back-and-forth with 13 tie scores and five lead changes, more of each than the previous sets combined. After BYU tied the match at 14 and UCSB called a timeout, the Gauchos were able to sneak in four quick points off Hanley's two kills and another Seif service ace. Hanley finished with 12 kills and two services aces of his own on the night.
BYU's timeout after Seif's ace sparked the team's presence at the net as they rejected two Gaucho attacks to tie the match back at 23. It was again Nielsen to put the team up within a point of clinching the win but nerves were running high on both sides. No one was left sitting in the stands while the overflow managed to hover around the court. Overcoming the pressure, Seif feigned on a set to strike for a critical kill to re-tie the match at 26. It was then two seniors, Licht and Thompson, who fittingly teamed-up for a double block to put the game at match point. A BYU attack error finished off the upset for the Gauchos.
Head Coach Rick McLaughlin reflected on the outstanding performance, "It's a great thing for this program that we're hosting next weekend. Frankly, if we perform the way we did tonight, it doesn't matter where we play."
The Gaucho win coincided with UC Irvine's loss to Stanford to secure the fourth position in the MPSF for UCSB. The team will host a playoff match next Saturday with the opponent, venue, and time to be determined as MPSF conference play wraps-up tomorrow.