Taylor Sander and the No. 2 seed BYU men’s volleyball team (21-9) fell just short of a berth in the national championship Thursday night, falling to the No. 3 seed Stanford University (24-8) in the NCAA Tournament Semifinal.
BYU lost a hard-fought, back-and-forth match in five sets (18-25, 25-21, 25-22, 27-29, 12-15). It was the fourth meeting between the two rivals this season, with BYU winning the previous three, including a convincing three sets to none sweep last Saturday to win the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship.
“It had to be one of the best semifinals that’s been played in this tournament in a long, long time,” said BYU head coach Chris McGown. “We’re clearly disappointed with the result, but I thought that we did everything we could. We played as hard as we possibly could have, and ultimately they got a few plays that went their way.”
Sander, named the American Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the Year on Wednesday, finished the game with a season-high 28 kills and four service aces. The four aces put Sander in the BYU record books once more, giving him the BYU rally-scoring era record for service aces in a career with 55. Sander also had 56 attempts on the night, surpassing Rob Stowell to claim the BYU rally-scoring career attempts record (3,464).
Junior Josue Rivera aided the Cougars with 10 kills and one service ace, and sophomore setter Robbie Sutton led the team with 52 assists.
Stanford jumped out to an early 7-3 lead in the first set, and BYU was never able to recover. The Cardinals cruised through the set behind their .679 hitting average and 20 kills, 25-18.
It was a different story in the second set. The Cougars raced out to an early 10-3 lead and didn’t looked back, taking the set 25-21 and evening the match at 1-1.
With the third set knotted at 20-20, freshman outside hitter Tim Dobbert smashed home a kill that put the Cougars ahead by one and sparked a 3-0 run that put BYU ahead 23-20. The Cougars seized control of the match, as they won the third set, 25-22, while hitting .342 and recording 16 kills.
BYU had multiple opportunities to seal the victory late in the fourth set, twice pushing Stanford to match point, but was unable to convert on either chance. Neither team led by more than two points throughout the fourth set, but momentum swung toward Stanford late in the set on a BYU service error and an attack error from Sander that put the Cardinal up 26-25.
The Cougars responded to tie the set at 27-27, but Stanford outside hitter Conrad Kaminski took over on back-to-back plays, a kill and a service ace, helping Stanford steal the set 29-27, and even the match at 2-2.
Stanford carried that momentum into the back-and-forth fifth set, aided by consecutive BYU attack errors from Rivera and Sander that put the Cardinals ahead for good 11-9. BYU, down 12-9, received a gift in the form of a service error, but was unable to make a late run. Stanford won the set 15-12 and prevailed in the match that mattered most, three sets to two.
In the match, BYU hit .275 while Stanford hit .333. Stanford was led by 18 kills from Eric Mochalski, with Steven Irvin adding 17.
Stanford will face the winner of the night’s second game; top-seeded Loyola of Chicago hosts fifth-seed Penn State May 3 for the NCAA Championship.