PROVO — In its first match since clinching the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title April 24, BYU men's volleyball wasted little time putting MIVA champion Lewis on its heels.
The third-ranked Flyers wasted little time counter-punching No. 2 BYU.
Then, Gabi Garcia Fernandez wasted little time doing Gabi Garcia Fernandez things.
With hitting for speed, power, or simply touch, the Puerto Rican international was too much for the best of the midwest.
Garcia Fernandez poured in 17 kills, seven digs, two aces and two blocks, and BYU held the Flyers below .300 hitting en route to a 25-22, 25-15, 26-28, 25-20 Thursday in the NCAA Tournament semifinals at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Davide Gardini added 11 kills and six digs and teammate Zach Eschenberg had 11 kills and three aces for the Cougars (20-3), who got six blocks from Felipe de Brito Ferreira.
Wil Stanley dished out 43 assists with eight digs and five blocks for the Cougars (20-3), who advanced to face top-ranked Hawaii in Saturday's championship match (6 p.m. MT, ESPNU).
A year ago, BYU and Hawaii had just ended a season split with one another in the islands, a battle of 1-2 teams that left little separation between the two before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season and forced players like Stanley, Eschenberg and Ferreira back for another year alongside natural seniors like Garcia Fernandez.
One year later, the two teams are the last ones standing — a combined four NCAA titles between them, but a championship drought that extends to BYU's most recent in 2004. It was, in many ways, what most expected — since the two were the No. 1 or No. 2-ranked teams nationally all year, and awarded the top-two seeds in the NCAA Tournament two weeks ago, and even well before then.
"Both of these teams, all of the teams, every kid and everyone; what we went through in the last year, it shows that we have great teams of a remarkable group of guys," BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. "Now here we are.
"Those were the two last matches we played last year, and both teams have put together great seasons, as well."
If Garcia Fernandez was the star, Stanley was the lynchpin in the win. The senior setter from Hawaii whose father Jon starred at BYU before an Olympic-caliber career with the U.S. national team distributed double-digit kills to three different hitters, and hit Miki Jauhiainen and Felipe de Brito Ferreira over the middle 13 times to keep the Flyers off balance.
"He's an amazing setter," Garcia Fernandez said. "He doesn't get as much credit as he should, but he'll go down as one of the most legendary setters in this program."
Five-time All-American Ryan Coenen led Lewis with 13 kills, four digs and two blocks, and Tyler Mitchem added 10 kills and six blocks for the Flyers (21-3). Kevin Kauling dished out 37 assists for Lewis, which committed 19 errors over the pins 22 errors from the service line.
"You're not going to win games making that many errors," Coenen said. "Congratulations to BYU, and to Hawaii … we wish those guys luck in the championship."
Garcia Fernandez tooled a kill to cap a 4-0 run and go up 13-10 in the fourth set, and Gardini put the Cougars on the brink of the finals with a thunderous kill to go up 21-19 before finishing on a 4-1 run, capped by the Flyers' 22nd service error of the match.
The high-flying Puerto Rican has set up plenty of shots before, with power, with speed, with grace. But that run, where Garcia Fernandez simply tipped around the block showed a different side of the AVCA All-American and two-time MPSF player of the year that even his teammates don't always see.
"You can see how the player develops throughout his years at BYU. He's not about bombing anymore; he's a better player, and can get those shots," said Gardini, the son of Italian international legend Andrea Gardini who learned to soar at the net as soon as he could walk. "We can miss and try some things, but when the moment is right, he's going to make some plays.
"It was funny to see him tipping, though, I'm not going to lie. But it's good to see him change the way he plays. I'm excited for him."
The Cougars were nearly flawless in the first two sets, hitting .400 in the first set and holding the Flyers to a .125 percentage in the second that dropped to zero with six kills and six errors. Lewis was held to just one ace with 13 errors on their first 15 attempts from the line before turning things around in the third set.
"I think overall, BYU served the ball well and we had to do a better job from serve-receive to give our middles an opportunity," Coenen said. "We didn't do that in the beginning.
"Then they started blocking balls in the end of the match. I had eight errors; that's unacceptable … but they got in a groove, blocking-wise, and made it really difficult."
Triple Block 🔥🔥🔥— BYU Volleyball (@BYUvolleyball) May 7, 2021
BYU 15-9 LEWIS | SET TWO pic.twitter.com/lYF4qooXqw
Keaton Long gave Lewis a rare lead midway through the set with a kill to go up 16-15. But the Flyers never led by two in the decisive third set until sending a ball off the block well past the service line for a 19-17 advantage.
Gardini gave the lead back to the Cougars with an ace off the top of the tape, 23-22. BYU fought off three set points in the third, but couldn't fight off a fourth as TJ Murray and Kauling stuffed the third set, 28-26 to prevent the sweep.
BYU was down. It wasn't out, though.
"That's an awakening for the team, as well as myself," Garcia Fernandez said. "I'm not all about serving, and I can do way more than that. I contributed the best I can, and when the time mattered, I put my serve in.
"When the time is right, it will come. The best athletes in the world stay steady, and don't worry about that."
No. 1 Hawaii 3, UC Santa Barbara 0
Normally, when All-American opposite Rado Parapunov hits .143 for top-ranked Hawaii, it spells trouble for the Rainbow Warriors.
Not so much in Thursday's first semifinal.
Parapunov had a team-high 12 kills and five blocks, and Hawaii stuffed upstart UC Santa Barbara en route to a 25-21, 25-18, 25-23 sweep of the Gauchos at the Covelli Center.
The 'Bows (17-4) only hit a collective .263 hitting percentage, but held the Santa Barbara to just .170 with a stifling 13.5 blocks, compared to the Gauchos' 4.0.
Patrick Gasman added 10 kills and six blocks with a ridiculous .625 hitting percentage for Hawaii, and Colton Cowell added 10 kills and four digs. Jakob Thelle dished out 32 assists with six digs and three aces, and Parapunov also had a team-high 11 digs for Hawaii.
Randy DeWeese had 13 kills and seven digs to lead UC Santa Barbara (16-5), and Casey McGarry added 29 assists and seven digs.