CHICAGO — BYU star senior Taylor Sander finished one kill shy of the highest total in his remarkable Cougar career, but the two opportunities Stanford blocked won’t be the plays he dwells on for some time to come.
One set earlier, BYU had two match points to advance to the national championship match for the second straight year.
Stanford denied both.
The Cardinal staved off elimination in the fourth set, managed two crucial blocks on Sander late in the fifth, and outlasted the Cougars in an epic Final Four battle (25-18, 21-25, 22-25, 29-27, 15-12) Thursday night at Loyola’s Gentile Center.
The Cougars, ranked No. 1 by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, won their first three matches against Stanford this season, including a three-set sweep in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation final on Saturday.
“We had all the chances in the world to finish that set out,” Sander said. “We didn’t make plays and they did. Same thing in the fifth. On those plays, they were able to capitalize and that was the match right there.
“It is so hard losing. It is so hard for my career at BYU to be done. The hardest part is not losing that match. The fact that I cannot battle with my boys anymore, that is the hardest part.”
Sander, the AVCA National Player of the Year, was every bit of that in his final match. He delivered 28 kills and four service aces while hitting at a .375 clip.
Seemingly every time Stanford started to build momentum, BYU leaned on the high-flying Sander to respond. He did so time and again, but Stanford was ready for him at the end of the final set.
After Stanford turned a 9-7 deficit into a 10-9 lead, the Cougars had Sander perfectly set up for a trademark back-row attack.
However, it was blocked by Brian Cook to make it 11-9 Stanford, and Sander was blocked on the next play, which Cook finished off with a kill.
“Sometimes when it’s a free ball, he is their guy and it’s almost too good to be true,” said Cook, whose 19 kills led Stanford. “They’re going to set him. We know that he is their main option and we got up and stuffed one ball and got a great touch on the other.”
BYU coach Chris McGown acknowledged that the Cougars' attack became somewhat predictable.
“On one hand, yes,” McGown said. “On the other hand, it’s Taylor, so you’re not going to not set that guy. You feel like he can make those plays for us. They did a nice job for sure. Perhaps we did become too predictable. ... In that situation, you’re going to set the best player on the court.”
Following a rough first set in which McGown credited Stanford for making an adjustment he hadn’t seen in person or on film, the Cougars seemed to take control of the match.
Sander was a monster in the second set, burying six kills on 11 attempts, and he had eight more in set three to put BYU on the doorstep of the championship game.
Neither team led by more than two at one point in set four, but the Cougars had two chances to win.
After Robbie Sutton (51 assists) set up Devin Young (seven kills, .467) to give BYU a 24-23 edge, James Shaw (59 assists) fed Steven Irvin to tie it at 24.
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BYU then went up 25-24 on a kill by Tim Dobbert, but Josue Rivera erred on the ensuing serve, and the Cougars did not lead again in the fourth as Stanford forced the first five-set national semifinal since 2006.
“This had to be one of the best semifinals played in this tournament in a long, long time,” McGown said. “Clearly I’m disappointed in the result, but I thought we did everything we could, played as hard as we possibly could and ultimately they had a few plays that went their way. I thought they played great as well. It’s easy to have plays go your way when you play as well as they did.”