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Pinpointing the lowest point in the BYU men's volleyball season is easy.

It was early February and sophomore sensation Taylor Sander, cradling his broken hand, watched from the Cougar bench as Stanford roared into the Smith Fieldhouse with a pair of shockingly easy victories.

Well, the two teams meet again Thursday, this time for larger stakes — an almost certain at-large bid to the NCAA Final Four.

Fourth-ranked BYU (24-6), with a healthy Sander, and No. 3 Stanford (21-6), the first of two Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinal matches, is scheduled for a 6 p.m. (MDT) start at USC's Galen Center. The match, followed by No. 1 USC against No. 2 UC Irvine, will be shown live on BYUtv.

The winners will play for the MPSF Tournament title on April 28 at 7 p.m., with the victor getting an automatic berth into the NCAA Final Four, which USC will host in the Galen Center on May 3 and 5. The tournament runner-up will most likely be invited as an at-large.

"We're not in any way coy with the fact that it is massively important for [Sander] to play," BYU coach Chris McGown said. "He is the heart and soul of our team. What were the [Chicago] Bulls without Michael Jordan?"

Sander and teammate Futi Tavana were named to the All-MPSF First Team. Robb Stowell, Joe Kauliakamoa and Russ Lavaja were named to the All-MPSF Second Team.

Stanford's offense is led by senior All-MPSF first teamer Brad Lawson with 411 kills and a .335 attacking percentage. The Cardinal have a .343 team hitting percentage.

Meanwhile, BYU is the best blocking team in college volleyball. Tavana is the all-time blocks and block assist leader in BYU's rally scoring era. Kauliakamoa leads the squad with 1,122 assists.

Offensively, athletic, nimble and quick, Sander's 408 kills leads the Cougar offense.

"I'm so happy to be with this team," Sander said. "We're excited to go to USC and win."

BYU escaped its quarterfinal match against Long Beach State with a five-set win. After winning the first two games, including a dominating second, the 49ers evened the match only to wilt in the fifth and final game.

"We just put all the pressure on us," Sander said. "We didn't play our game. We were frustrated."

Sander's presence opens up the court for the other Cougars, Stowell in particular. He has nearly 400 kills, giving the Cougars a potent one-two punch.

"Teams have to account for Taylor," McGown said.

Twitter: @tribmarty

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