No. 12 Kansas volleyball wins sixth-straight Sunflower Showdown
MANHATTAN, Kan. — Kansas volleyball won its sixth-straight Dillons Sunflower Showdown with a gritty five-set triumph at Kansas State on Sunday afternoon in front of a national television audience on ESPN2 (25-20, 21-25, 22-25, 25-15, 16-14).
The 12th-ranked Jayhawks (12-2, 1-0 Big 12) also win their sixth-straight road match in K-State’s scorching-hot Ahearn Field House, making KU’s 2017 senior class the third-straight group of seniors to never lose in Manhattan during their four-year college careers.
“Our team likes playing here because we know it’s going to be a good atmosphere,” Kansas head coach Ray Bechard said. “The heat was different today than what we experience. But hey, it’s part of the game. I’m glad it was a high-level volleyball match.”
Kansas made its way to a Big 12 Conference-opening win by recording a .342 hitting percentage and coming up with some key plays in the fifth set to clinch a 15th-straight victory over a Big 12 team.
Senior outside hitter Madison Rigdon led the Jayhawks with a match-high 18 kills, while fellow senior All-Americans Ainise Havili and Kelsie Payne contributed double-doubles. Payne finished with 14 kills and 12 digs and Havili contributed 55 assists and 10 digs to guide Kansas to its third-best team hitting percentage of the season. Sophomore libero Allie Nelson served up three aces and a match-high 17 digs.
KU fell behind in the match, two sets to one, and rallied to win the fourth and fifth sets to improve to 10-1 in the last 11 matches against its in-state rival.
“That’s going to be life in the Big 12 this year,” Bechard said. “Boy, K-State played hard. Kansas played hard. That’s the best match we’ve had this season, just if you’re a casual fan. Momentum was going both ways. We looked like we were out of it after being down two sets to one. Then we played about as well as we have all year in the fourth set. Got off to a good lead in the fifth set, and back K-State came to make it close down the stretch. Just great volleyball. Both teams hitting for a high percentage-wise. We end up getting enough touches and stops at the end to make it happen.”
Kansas hit the ground running in the first set as three early aces — two from Nelson and one from Rigdon — put the Jayhawks ahead, 15-10. Payne had three kills on her first six attempts while playing six rotations for the first time in two matches. Kansas clinched the first-set win after K-State staved off two set points until Rigdon notched a kill on the third set point to give Kansas the 25-20 decision.
Three more kills by Rigdon early in the second set allowed Kansas to jump out to a 6-2 lead, forcing a KSU timeout. The Wildcats were able to regroup and rally to tie the set, 12-12. The in-state rivals would go back-and-forth to the tune of 12 ties and five lead changes before K-State evened the match with a 25-21 second-set victory. Both teams recorded a .424 hitting percentage in the second set — Rigdon and senior middle blocker Taylor Alexander led KU’s second-set offensive onslaught with five kills each.
The start and end result of the third set mirrored the second set as Kansas sprinted out to an early 8-3 lead, only to see K-State rally and win a close decision, 25-22. The Jayhawks began to feel the effects of playing inside an air condition-less facility during a 90-degree day as Payne exited the court get hydration treatment and returned later in the set. Meanwhile, K-State was firing on all cylinders with 20 team kills on a .341 hitting percentage in the third set alone to take a 2-1 set lead in the match.
Payne came back strong in the fourth set to help put Kansas back on track with a 25-15 fourth-set victory. Alexander notched her second five-kill set of the match — her 10th kill of the day gave Kansas set point at 24-15 lead. The Jayhawks officially forced a fifth set as Payne registered a kill on set point. During the fourth set, Payne reached a double-double for the second time this season and 10th time in her career. The Jayhawks pass-and-serve unit was a key factor in forcing a fifth set as well, recording an 86 percent side-out rate in the fourth set.
Kansas put its best foot forward to start the fifth set, sprinting out to a 5-1 lead behind kills from sophomore outside hitter Jada Burse, Payne, Rigdon and Alexander. K-State was able to respond to KU’s early lead by flipping the script to take a 9-7 lead after Zsofia Gyimes served a 4-0 run, including an ace that careened over the net. Coming out of a KU timeout, back-to-back kills from Burse tooling off the KSU block tied the fifth set, 9-9.
Sophomore middle blocker Zoe Hill was involved in two huge blocks — one with Havili and another with Payne — late in the fifth set to give Kansas a 12-11 lead and force a KSU timeout. Hill notched her eighth kill of the day, followed consecutively by a service ace from Nelson to give Kansas match point, 14-12.
K-State would recover to tie the set at 14-14 and force extra points in the match-deciding set. After Payne gave Kansas its second match point, Rigdon tooled off the opposing block for a kill on match point to clinch the victory for the Jayhawks.
Kansas returns to Lawrence for its Big 12 home opener against No. 18 Iowa State on Wednesday night.
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