CHICAGO -- In the three home matches during the Mountain-Pacific Sports Federation tournament, the BYU men's volleyball team faced some pretty good opponents and had to battle in some of the sets.
When the chance came to close things out, the Cougars shut the door -- something they couldn't do Thursday night in the NCAA semifinals in Chicago against Stanford.
BYU had two match points but failed to convert and ended up falling to the Cardinal, 3-2 (25-18, 21-25, 22-25, 29-27, 15-12), eliminating the Cougars from the tournament.
"It had to be one of the best semifinals that's been played in this tournament in a long, long time," BYU head coach Chris McGown said. "We're clearly disappointed with the result, but I thought that we did everything we could. We played as hard as we possibly could, and ultimately they got a few plays that went their way."
Up two sets to one, BYU appeared to have withstood the final Stanford charge as they took a 24-23 lead in the decisive fourth frame.
But the Cardinal rallied, getting a kill to tie the match.
Then it was the Cougars' turn, as a kill from freshman opposite hitter Tim Dobbert again put BYU just one point from another trip to the NCAA championship.
But this time the Cougars didn't even get a chance to play for the point, as the serve went into the net, knotting things up at 25-25.
A crucial BYU hitting error on the next point put Stanford in front, then the team traded points a couple of times before an ace by Cardinal Conrad Kaminski ended the set in Stanford's favor (29-27) and forced the deciding fifth set.
"We were doing so many things well and just (had) a couple of errors," McGown said. "I thought during the whole season we were winning on executing those little plays, and couldn’t quite make them in a couple big moments tonight. I thought that was (the difference).
The Cougars again appeared to be in decent shape to get the victory after a kill by sophomore middle blocker Michael Hatch put BYU up 9-7 in the fifth set.
But it was the Cardinal who made the plays from there, as Stanford scored five straight points (three kills, two blocks) to go up by three.
The Cougars narrowed the gap briefly but eventually the Cardinal capped the victory with a kill by Brian Cook, who led Stanford with 19 kills in the contest.
While the Cardinal had two other hitters who had excellent performances (Steven Irwin had 17 kills and Eric Mochalski had 18), BYU turned into a one-man show.
Cougars senior All-American Taylor Sander finished with 28 kills and hit .375 for the contest but no other BYU player had more than the 10 kills registered by junior outside hitter Josue Rivera.
Stanford took advantage of that near the end, focusing a lot of attention on Sander and no one was able to make them pay.
The Cardinal sent a message in the first set that they were determined to end BYU's stretch of five straight victories in the series, including three in 2014.
Stanford roared out to a big lead and never let the Cougars threaten, getting the 25-18 win while hitting a match-high .679 (20 kills, one error on 28 total attacks).
But BYU rallied in the next two frames, not dominating, but doing enough to get the 25-21 and 25-22 victories.
That put the Cougars in the driver's seat heading to the fourth, a set in which neither team led by more than a few points. In the end, it was the Cardinal who pulled out the victory and BYU wasn't able to keep it going through the entire fifth set.
"I thought Stanford did a really good job with a nuanced game plan against us," McGown said. "Offensively they gave us a different look from what we’ve seen on film from them for quite some time. I thought that was a good adaptation they made in the time since we played them at BYU. We certainly didn’t keep up with them in the first set and then they got some things going in the fourth set that kept them in it. Stanford did a nice job defensively."
The Cougars ended up getting 52 assists from Robbie Sutton, seven blocks (two solo) from Devin Young and 11 digs from Sander in the losing effort.
BYU has only three seniors on the roster in Young, Sander and Nick Valencia (who rarely saw action). While the future is bright, it will be a tall task to replace Sander, a star who played a huge role for the Cougars for the last four years.
Stanford advances to Saturday's title game where the Cardinal will face either Penn State or Loyola-Chicago.