Saturday's match against Arkansas had all the ingredients for another routine win for Kansas volleyball. After taking the first set and holding a lead in the second, it seemed like Kansas may get its sixth consecutive sweep to open the season.
Instead, the Jayhawks dropped their first two sets of the year.
But Kansas was able to outlast Arkansas at Horejsi Family Athletics Center in a five set thriller, 25-19, 23-25, 25-19, 31-33, 15-8 to capture the Kansas Invitation title.
“I think the experience of a fifth set this early in the year is not a negative,” KU coach Ray Bechard said. “The pressure of the fifth set feels different than anything else. You can’t really simulate it in a practice situation.”
The win improved the No. 4 Jayhawks to 6-0 on the season, and it was thanks in large part to the superb play of junior right hitter Kelsie Payne. She recorded her second career double-double with 25 kills and 13 digs. Junior outside hitter Madison Rigdon also had a double-double with 16 kills and 13 digs.
Both benefitted from the passing of junior setter Ainise Havili, whose 59 assists were four more than the entire Arkansas team. Senior libero Cassie Wait was the anchor on defense with 31 of the Jayhawks 90 digs.
The Jayhawks could have likely avoided the grind of a two-and-a-half hour match by simply holding their lead in the second set. A two-set lead in the raucous atmosphere inside Horejsi would have likely been too much to handle for the Razorbacks.
“When you let a good team — a team that’s striving to get better — (have) chances, you get yourself in that situation,” Bechard said.
After Kansas jumped out to a 19-13 lead in the second set, Arkansas went on a furious 7-1 run to tie the score at 20.
Still, the expectation was that Kansas would make the plays necessary down the stretch to escape with the second set. Instead, it was Arkansas that made all the plays to steal the set.
Almost the exact same scenario played out in the fourth set, too. The Jayhawks led 22-19 and were just three points away from closing out the set. Once more, the Razorbacks rallied.
Both teams traded a handful of set points, but the Razorbacks were finally able to break through and temporarily hush the Horejsi crowd with a 33-31 fourth-set win.
“We can take a lot of positives away from the fourth set,” Bechard said. “We made a lot of great plays and so did they.”
The fifth set had all the makings of tight finish with Kansas leading 8-7 at the changeover. However, after the changeover, Arkansas made a few crucial errors and that opening was all Kansas needed.
“We made enough plays once we switched sides at 8-7 to come away with a good solid win,” Bechard said. “More of it was Arkansas’ errors, though.”
The Jayhawks will travel to Omaha, Neb., Thursday where they’ll face Creighton and Chattanooga in the Blue Jay Invitational.