No. 4 Kansas edged by No. 21 Creighton, suffers bitter ending to a sweet season

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LAWRENCE, Kan. – Kansas staved off six match points, including a near-match-ending call reversal, but Creighton’s Megan Ballenger flushed an overpass while playing out the seventh to lift the Bluejays to a 20-18 victory in the fifth set and 3-2 win over the Jayhawks. Creighton advanced to its second consecutive NCAA Championship Regionals while denying Kansas a repeat bid to the NCAA Final Four. 
Playing in their second narrowly decided, fifth-set nail biter of the season, Kansas and Creighton traded their best shots, but despite dropping the opening set and seemingly losing momentum with a fourth-set defeat, the Jays played the aggressor in the final frame and knocked and knocked and knocked again before finally handing the No. 5 overall seeded Jayhawks their first five-set loss of the season.  
“That was the best match I’ve ever been a part of,” a beaming Creighton head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said after the match. “I hate that someone’s season ends because the match could have gone either way. Hats off to (Kansas) for a great season. They gave us everything that we could handle, but it was surreal. We made our first Sweet 16 last year, that was pretty incredible, but this one is even bigger because KU is fifth in the country, to do it on their home court, with such a great atmosphere…we went for it tonight.”
Kansas head coach Ray Bechard had similar thoughts on the events of the evening but obviously had hoped for a different outcome.
“It was a special atmosphere in there, a special effort from both teams,” Bechard said. “I’m as proud as I can be for our group, but pretty devastated that we couldn’t flip the score.”
Kansas got 26 kills from All-American right-side hitter Kelsie Payne, including seven in the fifth set, but the Jayhawks spotted the Jays the first two points of the deciding set and despite leading at 10-9, seemed to be playing with their backs against the wall throughout.   
Creighton’s first match point was at 14-12 but a just-wide serve by Brittany Witt moved Kansas within one and a double hit by Lydia Dimke evened the tally. Creighton All-American Jaali Winters and Kansas outside hitter Madison Rigdon traded kills on the next four points and the Jays saw match-point number five on a service error by Ainise Havili.
That’s when an already elevated tension level escalated further as an attack by Payne was initially ruled long, sparking a bench-clearing celebration by Creighton. One of the four officials however had correctly ruled a Creighton touch, extending the match at 17-17.
“There was an obvious touch, that should’ve gave us some momentum,” Bechard said. “Obviously we didn’t do enough. You wouldn’t want to end a match like that. Give Creighton credit, every time you turned around they were making a play.”
CU’s Marysa Wilkinson wrapped a pair of kills around another Payne blow to mark the sixth and seventh match points. There would not be another. Ballenger waited on an over passed ball on Creighton’s right side of the net and sent it down and the Jays into celebration mode again.
Kansas claimed the opening set, 25-21, behind six kills from Payne on 14 swings – her entire total from the First Round sweep of Samford Thursday night – and five from Rigdon. However, true to the September match-up in Omaha that saw Creighton take a 2-1 advantage, the Jays responded by taking 11 of the first 15 points in the second set while winning 25-20, then hit .414 in the third set with three service aces to win 25-17.
Pushed to the brink, Kansas responded by scoring five straight to open set No. 4 and cruised to a 25-16 win while forcing the deciding fifth, but unlike the previous meeting this season, it was Creighton who struck first.  

 Cassie Wait logged a match-high 27 digs.”They’re going to have a response, and they did,” Bechard said of his thoughts after the fourth set. “We had some opportunities at 4-3, 5-4 that were just as big (as some of the later points). We were out of character that we tipped some balls, you have to play clean in the fifth set. They were a little cleaner than us. That’s a good team guys, Creighton is a very good team.”
For Creighton, Winters (23), Wilkinson (15) and Kloth (12) led the way in kills while Big East Player of the Year Lydia Dimke logged a match-high 56 assists. Bluejay freshman Brittany Witt led all player with three service aces.
Payne’s kills led all players and the Kansas junior was joined in double digits by Jada Burse and Rigdon, who each had 12. Havili directed the offense with 53 assists and added 18 digs. KU libero Cassie Wait led all players with a match-high 27 digs.
Jayhawk seniors Maggie Anderson, Tayler Soucie and Wait ended their careers with 103 total victories, including the best four-year winning percentage in program history. Among a slew of other firsts, the trio helped Kansas to its’ first two NCAA Sweet 16 appearances and last year’s Final Four berth. This season, KU claimed its first ever Big 12 Championship.
Creighton advanced to the NCAA Regional Semifinal to meet No. 12 overall seed Michigan, which defeated Oregon, 3-1, Friday.


Kansas head coach Ray Bechard
Opening statement:
“I guess if you were a casual volleyball fan and you just wandered across the Horejsi (Family Athletics) Center tonight, you would’ve thought something pretty special was going on. I’m not sure how many neutral fans were in there tonight, but that was a special atmosphere. It was a special effort from both teams. I’m just as proud as I could be of our group. Obviously, we’re pretty devastated (that) we couldn’t flip the score, but probably more than anything I’m going to really, really miss my relationship with these three young ladies (seniors Cassie Wait, Tayler Soucie and Maggie Anderson), all they’ve meant for us and what we tried to do. At some point, we’ll reflect on 27-3 (record), which sounds pretty good, but right now it just hurts a little bit. I thought we were really good in the fourth set, the fifth set, we just didn’t get the break we needed or create the breaks we needed. So, congratulations to Creighton, they played an unbelievable match and Coach (Kirsten) Bernthal Booth has done an outstanding job there. They’re a team I think will represent our pod of teams very well.”

On how the team will move on from this:
“That’s a great question. We just talked a little bit about what do we learn from this? There’s times in practice, in the middle of October, it gets monotonous. You try to do a pressure serving drill, I said to Addie Barry, ‘You understand what a pressure serving drill is now?’ At 14-12 and your season is on the line, you’re back there serving, that’s a pressure serving drill. We do a drill where defensively you’ve got to step up and make it happen and it’s a hard drill to get. They get frustrated when they don’t get it, because we have to do it again. But we needed one stop defensively when we were serving and Creighton had all the answers. I will say, I think the question was well put, this felt more like a regional final than a second-round match with the energy and the teams were both playing at a high level. You combine how many wins we had and how many they had, it was like 35, 40 in a row. Our fifth set magic, we just didn’t make enough plays, but they’re a lot of lessons to learn in that. We tipped a couple balls in the fifth set, when you always want to be aggressive. We missed some key serves. Hopefully this will resonate as we move into the spring and we’ll gain some opportunity from it.”

On the locker room scene postgame:
“We gave them a few minutes, but obviously, it was pretty quiet when we got in there. Cassie Wait, she can’t talk because she left it all on the floor. Maggie Anderson got her K Ring the other day and she came up to (associate head) Coach Bird (Laura Kuhn) and I, and she said most everybody gets their initials or their number engraved inside their K Ring. You get four symbols you can use and she said I used ‘MDCT’ and she just looks at us. And I said ‘MDCT?’ She said, ‘Yeah, my dream came true.’ What do you tell a kid after a match like that, that feels that way about your program and about your school? Tayler Soucie just works and works and works. I think the team realized it’s going to be difficult without those three individuals in our program. I think that’s what they were feeling. I’m sad in the fact that I loved being around this group. That’s what I told them when we started the fourth set, ‘Hey I love you guys, let’s go have some fun.’ We’ll look back at 27-3 at some point, but I feel very conflicted about wanting to say what a great year it was when, in fact most people would look at it that way, but this team certainly had every intent to play longer.”

On the fifth set:
“They were going to have a response, and they did. We had some opportunities – you remember the plays at 14 all, 15 all, 16 all, but there are plays at 4-3 and 5-4 that are just as big. Like I said, we were a little out of character, we tipped some balls, we weren’t as aggressive as we needed to be. You’ve got to play clean in the fifth set. You can get away with a little bit of sloppy in a 25-point game, but they were a little cleaner than us. And that’s a good team guys. Creighton is a very good team.”

On the call reversal near the end of the fifth set:
“It was the right call; it was an obvious touch. You get a little nervous without the challenge review system, but yeah, that should have given us some momentum. I don’t remember exactly what happened right after that, but obviously, we didn’t do enough. It was the right call, you wouldn’t want to end the match on something like that, but give Creighton credit, they had the answer every time. You turned around and they were making a play.”

Kansas senior libero Cassie Wait
On momentum switches:
“We talk a lot about controlling the first contact. The team which served tougher and passed better was going to be in control of the momentum the whole game. We talk a lot about sideout percentage and point scoring percentage. It was really close to where I wanted to be, but that one percent made the difference and that’s what we’re talking about here – who had the momentum a little bit longer in the match. They got us this time.”

On the team’s confidence going into the fifth set:
“Yeah, we talked about how all year the fifth set was our match. We typically got out to an early lead and they were a good team. They were tough to stop when we were trying to point score and they sided out really well. I think, again, we talk about controlling the first contact and we felt really good. We were pumped going into that set, but it was all about who’s going to pass better, who’s going to serve tougher.”

Kansas senior middle blocker Tayler Soucie
On all their accomplishments this season, but falling short tonight:
“I think that’s what makes it hurt the most. The people we’ve had around us have made it so special; the fun we’ve had, the moments we’ve created. Knowing that we’ve helped make this program better and that we hope that in the future it continues to do what we’ve been trying to do.”

Kansas senior setter Maggie Anderson
On all their accomplishments this season, but falling short tonight:
“I think the word we came up with is ‘bittersweet.’ The things you listed, we can’t complain about that stuff, but like Coach (Bechard) said, it just hurts a little bit right now.”

On playing Creighton so early in this year’s NCAA Tournament:
“We’ve played Creighton quite a bit in my career. I know a handful of the girls; we have a great relationship. When we saw Creighton was coming to Lawrence, we were excited. We were excited we got to play them again.”

Creighton head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth
Opening statement:
“That was the best match I’ve ever been a part of. I first want to start with Kansas. (Kansas head coach) Ray (Bechard) has been a mentor to me and (is) someone that is a good friend. I enjoy their entire staff. It’s the way I felt last night with UNI. I hate that someone’s season ends because in a match like that it could’ve gone either way. Hats off to them on a phenomenal season. To some degree we’re playing with house money and I think the pressure is tough. They obviously gave us everything we could handle. It was surreal. We made our first Sweet 16 last year and that was pretty incredible, but this one is even bigger because KU is (ranked) fifth in the country. To do it on their home court in such a great atmosphere (is special). I alluded to this last night – in the preseason in those situations we got tentative and we went for it tonight. Had we lost, I said this in the locker room, I would’ve been so proud of the way we played. It would have killed us I think, but we went for it. That’s a huge step for this team and this program and against great teams you have to do that. I’m a little bit of a recording from last night on that front. I still think I’m a little bit in shock, but we are really excited to move on. It was an incredible match. Hats off to Kansas.”

On the competitive spirit of the match:
“I think it’s unfortunate we hit so early. Kansas should be moving on and I feel like we’re a team that deserves to move on. We’ve always known Kansas is a team of winners. To go 8-0 in fifth games all season tells you they know how to win. I have to guess in the huddle Coach Bechard was saying, ‘This is our wheelhouse. This is where we’re comfortable.’ Fortunately, I think we’ve developed into winners. The great thing was that both teams went for it. I think at any high level of any sport you want to win it rather than have someone lose it and I think that happened tonight.”

On the program’s recent success:
“I think what we’ve learned in the last two years through our noncom (schedule) is we now believe we can beat anyone in the country. Before it was, ‘We hope we can beat anyone in the country.’ When we lost to USC they were No. 1 in the country and they didn’t win the national championship obviously – KU upset them. We felt like we had opportunities there so that drove us during the offseason. As you know (sophomore outside hitter) Jaali (Winters) is highly competitive, she didn’t talk for about 48 hours after that loss she was so upset about that. The noncon was huge for us. Kansas was No. 4 when we played them and we lost 15-13 in the fifth (set) and that’s a match that can go either way. We had two set points to go up 2-1 on No. 1 Nebraska. Those are huge moments for a young group that’s trying to take that next step of saying we can compete with these top teams, it doesn’t matter what the name of their jersey is on the back. Creighton can play with the big dogs and I think last year paid dividends to that.”

On sophomore outside hitter Jaali Winters:
“I have a philosophy of a winner is a winner. Brittany Witt, our freshman libero, that kid is a winner. Jaali was a winner when she walked in the door. I’ll never forget a text I got from her in high school; they had lost a game, 15-13, in the fifth and she’d made an error. I said, ‘Great match,’ and she said, ‘No, I have to make that play. That’s my job.’ This is a kid that wants the ball at end game and steps up and goes for it. It doesn’t always happen, but a good percent of the time she’s going to get it done and she did tonight. I was thrilled at end game she was in the front row again because she’s going to make plays.”

On the overturned point in the fifth set:
“It was hard. I didn’t think they touched it and I thought we won it. I have seen that happen so many times and a team gets rattled and we lose the next point immediately. If I had a timeout I would’ve taken it, but I didn’t have a timeout. I told them in the locker room I was yelling and the team turns to me and a couple of the players say, ‘We got this.’ They were calming me down in that situation. Again, from a maturity standpoint for them and they did. We nailed a pass and I think it was a first-ball kill if I recall, but I have no memory.”

On junior middle blocker Marysa Wilkinson:
“She was incredible. She carried us a lot last night and then she was a huge factor again tonight. She’s so versatile. It goes back to the offseason because her vertical is up and she’s just in incredible shape. It’s fun to see a kid do that. Our season started in January and people that commit to the process, this is how you reap rewards on matches like this.”

On the upcoming Sweet 16 match with Michigan:
“It is in Austin (Texas). I don’t know much about Michigan. I know that they play a stud middle in Abby Cole, who is a former teammate of Kenzie Crawford, one of our defensive specialists. That’ll be fun because they’re good friends. I know Mark (Rosen) is a great coach and they’ve played the rigors of a BIG 10 schedule. We will dive into that immediately. We are thrilled for the opportunity. I’ve been to Austin, but I’ve not played at Texas. I think we’ll take tonight off and we’ll dive in tomorrow.”

Creighton senior middle blocker Lauren Smith
On winning the match:
“I try not to think about the fact (that) it’s my last year. I really trust my teammates and we play so well together. We really believed we were going to win and we went after it. I’m so proud of the way that the girls (handled themselves), not only on the court, but off of it. Our chemistry together is something I can’t explain. I knew no matter what happened tonight we were going to stick together.”

On when the team will prepare for Michigan:
“Right away.” (Laughter)

Creighton junior setter Lydia Dimke
On recovering from an overturned call in the fifth set:
We did touch it, I’m not going to lie. We were kind of expecting the ball to come back so no matter what happened or what the call was we were just going to refresh our minds. We’ve been saying all year, that this team is really mature. To be able to get on such a high –thinking (that) we just won and then get brought back down – we just really stuck together. We play so well together with our maturity and confidence. We know that regardless of if we won it on that point (or not), we were going to win it again.”

On the match and the different outcome in five sets from September:
“I think we were pretty pumped when we saw we were coming to Kansas. I know a lot of people could be saying, ‘Oh, Kansas is a hard draw,’ but we were saying, ‘Yeah, we want to come back and beat them and we want to do it in fashion on their home court.’ We were excited and we remembered that. That game (in September) was a tough loss that we’ve remembered all season. We weren’t going to let it happen again.”

On playing consecutive NCAA Tournament five-set matches:
“Kansas is an amazing team as you can tell because it was so close. We knew that when we were up 2-1 they weren’t going to roll over. We expected them to come out in the fourth game. It was the same thing yesterday with UNI, both are great teams and they really challenged us. We just had to mentally reset. Like Jaali said, it was kind of the same, we just took a game off in the fourth and saved our energy for the fifth to make it more exciting. (Laughter) We had to just wipe the fourth away, reset and get ready for the fifth.”

Creighton sophomore outside hitter Jaali Winters
On recovering from an overturned call in the fifth set:
“Lydia actually took us into the huddle as they were deciding whether we touched it or not. She calmed everyone down and told us either way we would come back and win. She was a really great leader at that point so thank you for doing that.”

On the match and the different outcome in five sets from September:
“I would just say all of our experiences and everything we’ve gone through as a team, all of our wins and our losses, have brought us to this point – to the point where we had enough confidence that we could do it. I think that confidence and belief is what set us apart tonight.”

On the team’s growing confidence after stumbles early in the year:
“I think all of those losses were because we lost to ourselves and not to the other team. We took all of those losses really hard because we knew we could’ve beaten those teams if we played within ourselves. That’s what we did tonight.”

On her tournament performance:
“The way I’ve prepared for every match and every practice is that it’s a championship game. Every match and every time I touch the ball is so important to me and I just want to continue to do that.”

On playing consecutive NCAA Tournament five-set matches:
“I actually thought it was kind of similar (to last night vs. UNI) just because we knew we were going to lose that fourth match and we just had to reset for the fifth game. Kansas was on its home court and they had all of the momentum in the world. We knew we needed to come out quick and shut them down. I think they went on a 5-0 run in the fourth set so we knew we just needed to not let them do that in the fifth and we would be good.”

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