Defense carries No. 8 Kansas past Missouri State, 3-1

RALEIGH, N.C. – A lot has happened since the last time Kansas volleyball recorded 19 or more team blocks in a match. Winning a Big 12 title. Advancing to the final four. Three first-team All-America nods.

That changed on Saturday morning when the eighth-ranked Jayhawks registered 19 team blocks in a four-set win over Missouri State (25-23, 25-23, 21-25, 25-19) on day two of the Wolfpack Invitational. Led by eight blocks (one solo) from sophomore Zoe Hill and seven blocks (two solo) from senior Taylor Alexander, it marks the most blocks for KU in a match since posting 20.5 team rejections on Nov. 29, 2014 at Oklahoma.

Senior right-side hitter All-American Kelsie Payne set the tone for both sides of the court with her first double-double this season of 23 kills, 15 digs and five blocks.

“She emerged for us in a big way,” Kansas head coach Ray Bechard said. “I’m as pleased with her 15 digs and five blocks as much as I am with her 23 kills. That’s a big-time contribution to our team today. As a team, we continue to play a little uneven offensively but defensively we are ahead of where we have been in the past at this time of year.”

KU’s front-line defense was highlighted by four Jayhawks reaching at least five blocks against the Bears, while sophomore libero Allie Nelson led the back-line protection with a career-high 28 digs. Senior All-American setter Ainise Havili recorded her second-straight double-double of 43 assists and 18 digs. Senior All-American outside hitter Madison Rigdon joined the double-double club with 14 kills and 10 digs.

Missouri State (1-1), the preseason favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference, was held to a .153 hitting percentage. Aubrey Cheffey paced the Bears with 17 kills.

Kansas withheld a late Missouri State run to take the first set, 25-23. After 10 ties on the way to an early 11-11 score, the Jayhawks created a margin with a 4-0 run fueled by a pair of kills from Alexander, who finished with four in the set. Payne also started the match with four kills in the first set as Kansas made its way to a 23-16 lead. But the Bears went on a 7-1 run behind sharp serves from Emily Butters and Lily Johnson to test the Jayhawks before Alexander locked-up the set victory with a solo block.

Alexander’s solo block proved to the tipping point for Kansas to begin flexing its front-line muscles. In the last three sets, KU recorded five team blocks in the second, six in the third and five in the fourth.

KU went on to take a 3-0 lead in the second set with two blocks, both of which involved Hill, who came off the bench to start at middle blocker. KU’s lead would once again ebb-and-flow from a 12-7 lead to six ties in the middle of the set all the way to a 23-23 score. On the 23-all point, Nelson dove to keep the ball alive and eventually set up a kill by Hill to give KU set point, 24-23. Rigdon finished off the second-set win with a kill on set point.

Coach Bechard noted the trust his coaching staff has for the team in tight situations late in the set,” There was an opportunity to call timeout at 23-23 in the second set, but we trust this group to make the right decisions and execute. That’s exactly what they did today.”

By the end of the second set, Payne already had a double-double with 10 kills on a .429 hitting clip and 11 digs.

Missouri State responded in the third set with a 25-21 victory. The Bears jumped out to an 8-3 lead that Kansas challenged late, but couldn’t overcome despite six kills by Payne, nine digs from Nelson and six team blocks in the third set alone.

Kansas took control of the fourth set with a late 8-2 run to clinch the match. In the middle of a 4-0 KU run, Havili came out of a Missouri State timeout to ace the Bears for a 20-17 lead. On a day when KU recorded the most team blocks in three years, the Jayhawks secured the win in fitting fashion – a block-assist by Alexander and Rigdon on match point.

The Jayhawks improve to 5-1 against Missouri State since 1990. The two teams representing bordering states last met during KU’s run to the 2015 final four when Kansas swept Missouri State, 3-0, on Sept. 19, 2015 in Lawrence.

UP NEXT
KU concludes the Wolfpack Invitational tonight with a rematch against NC State at 6 p.m. Central. Coverage can be heard on KUAthletics.com/radio and video streamed on ACC Network Extra via WatchESPN.com or the ESPN app.

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