Jayhawk Insider: Down, but not out
Momentum and the match appeared to be solely in possession of the West Virginia volleyball team Wednesday night at the Horejsi Family Athletics Center, as the Mountaineers posted a pair of 25-22 set victories and was leading Kansas, 23-22, in the potential match-winning third set. Just one point away from match point. One point.
The Jayhawks seemed to be heading toward their first Big 12 Conference loss of the season, and not just a loss – a sweep on their home floor. Up to that point, KU struggled with a hitting percentage of .078, well below its .218 season average. The Jayhawks had chalked up 27 hitting errors, and things were looking bleak for the Crimson and Blue.
But then, IT happened. Yes, IT. At that point, in front of another sold-out crowd, something switched. There was a different amperage reading in the gym. The Jayhawks went from 0 to 60 mph in a snap of the fingers. WVU never reached match point in the third set. The Mountaineers never scored those two points to earn the sweep.
There wasn’t a noticeable trigger. The Jayhawks were out of timeouts. There wasn’t a flicker of the lights in the gym. There wasn’t an, “Ah!” bellowing from the crowd. Something happened though. It might have just been the result of what happens when a gritty, successful program has its back against the wall. The Jayhawks had some fight left, and it showed.
Back-to-back kills by junior Jada Burse, two of her team-high 17, quickly turned the tide and put West Virginia on the ropes as KU was the first to match point, up 24-23. A bad WVU set off the follwing serve gave Kansas the set win, and a chance to breathe.
“We were lucky to get it to the fourth set, and once we did, we kind of took off,” said head coach Ray Bechard. “I have never seen a more diverse stat sheet than I have (Wednesday). I think everything settled down after that third set. Camryn (Ennis) struggled a bit, so Gabby (Simpson) did more of the setting – she settled us down. Ashley (Smith) and Jada (Burse) struggled early with their timing and then really got it going. Defensively, we started blocking balls. Any time you can out-dig and out-block, you have a chance.”
There is nothing more settling than a sense of control, and control pretty much summarized the fourth set, as the Jayhawks jumped out to an 11-2 lead. The set-opening run was powered by four kills from junior Zoe Hill, who finished one kill shy of a double-double with nine kills and a match-high 11 blocks.
In the middle of the fourth set, the two teams traded points, but with KU leading 15-6, the Jayhawks knotted the match at two sets a piece by closing out the set on a 10-3 run. During the final run, junior Ashley Smith pounded three of her 16 kills. The 25-9 fourth-set victory was the largest margin by Kansas this season, topping the 25-11 fourth-set victory over the College of Charleston in Lexington, Kentucky, on August 31, 2018.
“Our hitters started connecting with our setters more and our blocking attack just got more organized,” said junior libero Allie Nelson, who finished the night with a match-high 19 digs. “When our defense is organized, I feel like that is when we play our best.”
Not only did Nelson’s digs contribute to the defense, but the Jayhawks also stepped up their block. KU only notched one block in the match’s first two sets, but over the final three sets collected 12 as a team.
“We were really locked in on our defense late,” Hill said. “(Head) coach (Bechard) reminded us that is the strongest part of our game. Just being locked in on attacking the net and that is what we needed to do.”
With the match tied, 2-2, Kansas needed to finish the comeback. Once again the Jayhawks jumped out on West Virginia and took an 8-3 lead in the decisive set before the teams switched sides. For the final three KU points in the set, the Jayhawks turned to their big three attackers in Hill, Smith and Burse. The trio didn’t disappoint for the 15-7 fifth-set win, as the Jayhawks rallied for the come-from-behind victory thanks to an improbable 43-16 run when they were just two points away from being swept.
“For volleyball, that is significant,” Bechard said “I just felt the team take a big exhale when we finally got to that fourth set. They thought, ‘ok, we are good.’ They were kind of fighting themselves with some jitters and were probably thinking, ‘holy cow, we can’t get swept at home by West Virginia or any other team.’ When we just relied on our training and took care of each of our responsibilities, things turned in a hurry in the fourth and fifth sets.”
Nelson knew the Jayhawks’ backs were against the wall.
“It was kind of a do or die situation,” Nelson added. “We were like, ‘we have to ride right now, we have to go.’ That huddle, we were all really locked in. We were like, ‘eye contact up here and we have to go right now.’ We flipped a switch and that is when we got organized.”
Part of that organization was the shift in the setter position. Ennis finished the match with 27 assists, but Simpson came on late to serve as a catalyst for the KU offense. Simpson ended with 23 assists.
During the 43-16 run, Kansas blasted at a .629 hitting clip, while only committing one error. As insurmountable as the task seemed, when looking at the comparisons it is easy to see how the transformation took place Wednesday night. An .078 hitting percentage improved to .629. Hitting errors dropped from 27 to one. Blocks improved from one to 12. It took a little while, but Bechard got the Jayhawks on the same page by the end of the match.
“That is what I love about this team,” Hill said. “I feel like it is really easy to pull everyone together and know that we are on a mission and we have to get the job done.”
Job complete. Kansas wins 22-25, 22-25, 25-23, 25-9, 15-7.
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