No. 4 Kansas wins at Baylor, clinches sole possession of Big 12 title

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WACO, Texas – The only place the 2016 Big 12 Conference volleyball championship banner will hang is in Lawrence, Kansas inside Horejsi Family Athletics Center. The fourth-ranked Jayhawks decided that on Saturday afternoon by defeating Baylor in five sets at Ferrell Center to conclude the regular season, 25-20, 25-15, 16-25, 22-25, 15-9.

The season-finale win extends KU’s winning streak to 14 matches while placing the Jayhawks alone atop the Big 12 standings with a 15-1 mark in league play and 26-2 record overall.

“Rock Chalk! I’m proud of this group,” Kansas head coach Ray Bechard said. “Now we can close the chapter on a great regular season and get ready for what we hope is a great postseason.”

The win also clinched the Big 12’s automatic bid to the upcoming NCAA Championship for Kansas. The Jayhawks, making their eighth postseason trip and first as an automatic qualifier, may see their highest seeding in tournament history revealed during the Selection Show on Sunday night at 8 p.m. Central on ESPNU. Kansas was a No. 9 overall seed during last season’s Final Four run.

Junior All-American right-side hitter Kelsie Payne returned to the lineup for the Jayhawks on Saturday, registering 19 kills and 10 digs after missing the regular-season home finale against Iowa State last week. Payne helped improve Kansas to 8-0 in five-set matches with six kills in the fifth set alone.

Freshman outside hitter Jada Burse finished with 16 kills for the second-straight match, while junior outside hitter Madison Rigdon notched her 10th double-double of the season with 11 kills and 13 digs. Junior All-American setter Ainise Havili also posted a double-double with 53 assists and 13 digs, while guiding Kansas to a .476 hitting percentage in the fifth set.

Seniors Tayler Soucie and Cassie Wait kept KU’s league-leading defense intact with 24 digs from Wait and eight blocks from Soucie.

Baylor’s Katie Staiger proved hard to deny with 22 kills, 14 digs and six blocks. The Bears finish the regular season with a 9-7 Big 12 record to finish in fourth-place in the league at worst, pending Saturday’s complete results. 

Kansas began the match with impressive first- and second-set wins, 25-20 and 25-15, respectively. Burse was efficient from the start as she recorded KU’s first points of the day and finished the first set with five kills. Payne returned to her All-American form, registering her first kill of the day to put Kansas up, 12-8, in the first set. The Jayhawks made their way to a 25-20 opening-set victory despite five early service errors.

The Jayhawks held Baylor to a just 17 kills on a -.025 hitting percentage in the first two sets of the match.

Baylor, playing in front of an emotional Senior Day crowd, quickly turned the tide with third- and fourth-set wins. The Bears used a 10-1 run to end the third set and a 7-1 run to end the fourth set to temporarily stave off a Kansas victory.

As the final set began, the Jayhawks left little doubt that they would maintain a perfect (8-0) record in five-set matches this season. In a race to 15 points, the Jayhawks recorded 12 kills on a .476 hitting percentage to finish the regular season, led by six kills from Payne in the fifth set.

“It feels great,” Bechard concluded. “I need to get beyond the fact that we let Baylor back in the match and enjoy what this team has accomplished over a 16-match conference schedule. We are one true champion as a member of the only power-five conference which plays a double round-robin schedule. We had to take everybody’s best shot twice. I’m very proud of our team. Over the last seven matches we have played five five-setters, but remained resilient enough to win.”

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