Kelsie Payne walked out of the Kansas locker room and to the hoard of cameras and reporters behind the bleachers in Horejsi Family Athletics Center.
Payne and the No. 7 Jayhawks had just finished off their sweep (25-23, 25-20, 25-20) over No. 13 Kentucky, moving to 7-0 and giving them their first home regular season win of the year. But as the senior approached the group, the first words out of her mouth had little to do with the match — at least the volleyball part of it.
“Woo, it’s hot,” she remarked.
Horejsi, typically a hostile venue for visitors, had a little more in store for the two teams on Monday. The gym was toasty from the onset, leading to several stoppages as the managers tried to wipe up the extra sweat off the floor.
In similar fashion, the Jayhawks got off to a sluggish start. The team committed several unforced errors in the early stages and fell behind 8-4. At that point, senior Madison Rigdon was the only Jayhawk who had recorded a kill.
“I don’t think I’ve ever sweat this much,” Payne said. “Usually when we start warming up we all have our jackets on, and it’s cold. But by the middle of set 1, I was dripping sweat.”
But in a moment, things started to turn.
With the score tied at 17, Payne smashed a kill, her third of the set, off the head of a Kentucky player and let out a smile for the first time since the match began.
The Jayhawks went on a quick 3-0 run, forcing a Kentucky timeout. They finished off the first set and closed out the final two in strong fashion, keeping the Wildcats at an arm’s length as they got deeper and deeper into the afternoon.
“I thought (after the first set) we kind of controlled things a little bit,” KU coach Ray Bechard said after the game.
Part of the reason for that control was KU’s precision in attacking.
The Jayhawks tallied a .390 hitting percentage — “For all you volleyball aficionados, that’s a really good number,” said Bechard — much of which was due to the duo of Payne and Rigdon.
Payne posted 14 kills to two errors, numbers Bechard said he’d take “anytime.”
Rigdon, who came into the match 30 kills shy of 1,000 for her career, played like she had that number in mind, though she denied as much after the game.
In addition to tallying the first four Kansas kills of the match, Rigdon was just about everywhere on Monday, chipping in with 16 kills, seven digs and a service ace. And while she kept the team in the match in the early stages, it was the ace that sparked a run in the second set, as the Jayhawks took six straight points to turn a four-point deficit into a two-point advantage.
“She has been getting off to some slow starts actually this year, but not today,” Bechard said. “Rigdon kind of kept us in it by taking those swings.”
Setter Ainise Havili (match-high 40 assists) and libero Allie Nelson (match-high 10 digs) rounded out the other top performers for the Jayhawks, who moved to 19-1 in home openers under Bechard.
But perhaps even more important than the singular win, the hope after the game was that it could lead to more in what should be a rigorous non-conference slate for the Jayhawks.
“Well, we needed to start this week off (right), because there’s a lot ahead of us,” Bechard said. “Certainly this will allow for some momentum going into this week. Belmont is going to be excited to play. They have local players. And then Purdue (is) undefeated, Creighton (is) top 10. There’s a lot to prepare for.”