No. 4 Nebraska Prevails Over No. 9 Kansas in NCAA Semifinal, 3-1
OMAHA, Neb. – Kansas’ list of never-before accomplishments finally stopped growing Thursday night with a 3-1 loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the NCAA Championship Semifinals at CenturyLink Center, leaving unfinished work for another season.
The Jayhawks achieved the unprecedented during a magical 2015 season – including advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year, the program’s second NCAA Sweet 16 in three years, a first-ever Elite Eight and bouncing the No. 1 overall seed for 30 wins and a reservation in Omaha for Thursday night’s Final Four showdown with Nebraska.
Instead of a first-ever win over the Huskers and a third shot at Texas, who defeated Minnesota in four sets earlier in the evening, in an all-Big 12 title match, Nebraska jumped out jumped out to 2-0 lead in front of an NCAA-record setting 17,551 fans – the vast majority wearing red shirts – then pushed past a Kansas challenge to claim their 15th straight victory and seventh NCAA title berth.
Kansas’ Kelsie Payne, named to the AVCA All-America First Team on Wednesday, led all players with 22 kills and just three errors, but the Jayhawks couldn’t muster much else in the way of a consistent attack while hitting .159 for the match. There were spurts when the offense, block and serve clicked, including during a 25-20 win in the third set and early in the fourth, but the hole was too big to climb out of.
The first point foreshadowed a less than sparkling performance as Tiana Dockery mishandled a tough serve to give the opening tally to the Huskers. Throughout the first two sets, Kansas committed seven service errors without recording a service ace and the No. 4 team in the tournament took full advantage.
Still Kansas played close in the first, trailing just 19-18, before a service error – KU’s fourth of the opening set – a block and a kill on an over ball by Mikaela Foecke gave Nebraska three straight points. The Huskers took the first set 25-20.
In the second set, both teams traded jabs through the first 12 points before Nebraska surged ahead 8-6. A joust at the net won by KU’s Ainise Havili, also named an AVCA First Team All-American Wednesday, gave the Jayhawks a little spark, but the Nebraska block and more errors from Kansas saw the advantage creep to six by 18-12. KU was hitting just .094 at that point, despite just two blocks from the Huskers. Kansas made a run, benefitting from another joust win from Havili against two Huskers, and pulled as close as 24-21 before Nebraska finally claimed set point on a smash by Kadie Rolfzen.
The late surge and the break between sets seemed to give Kansas new life in the third set. Again both teams traded early blows and were tied at 10-10, before Kansas scrambled on a rally of bad balls that eventually ended with a Dockery kill and a 15-13 KU advantage. It was ugly, but the type of effort the Jayhawks needed and the senior yelled to her teammates, “That’s how we play,” in the huddle at the timeout.
In the first set, Kansas had been caught off guard by a free ball kept alive on a cross court shot wrapped around the antenna, but in the third set caught Nebraska sleeping, saving the rally with two diving attempts then an over before Janae Hall flushed a solo block to make it 18-16. Madison Rigdon followed with a block to make it 19-16 and KU benefitted from its first, and only ace of the set, by Anna Church to lead 22-18. Nebraska pulled within three before Dockery whiffed on two attacks then joined Soucie for a set clinching block, 25-20.
Prior to the fourth set, a chant of “Go Big Red” filled the arena and the Huskers snagged the first two points. Kansas used another ugly scramble to pull even at 7-7 and tied it again at 8-8 on a set attack from Havili, part of an eight kill effort from the sophomore.
That’s when the last set started to unravel. An eighth KU service error was followed by a Nebraska block, then a third straight point forced KU to take a timeout down 11-8. Payne fired back with a pair of kills wrapped around a KU net violation and a ninth service error and Nebraska charged forward to a six-point advantage at 18-12.
Kansas rattled off four straight points to pull within two but that would be the last significant surge. After trading points, Nebraska closed the set and match on a seven point run, including several from Cecilia Hall, who finished with 10 kills.
A combined block from Hall and Kelsey Fien ended the match and prompted a Nebraska dog pile near mid court. The Huskers and Longhorns will meet Saturday at 6:30 p.m. inside CenturyLink Center to determine this year’s NCAA Champion.
Soucie and Hall joined Havili with eight kills for Kansas in the loss, with Havili adding 38 assists and Hall five blocks. Cassie wait had a game-high 23 digs.
Kadie Rolfzen led Nebraska with 14 kills and was joined in double figures by Foecke (12) and Hall (10). Hall added seven blocks and Kelly Hunter paced the Huskers with 47 assists.
• Tonight’s attendance was 17,551, which set an NCAA volleyball national semifinal and final record. The previous semifinal mark was 17,430 which was set in 2008 (Nebraska was the host). The highest championship attendance is 17,209 which was set in 2006 (Nebraska was the host)
• Kansas ends its season with a 30-3 record, with all three losses coming against the teams to play in Saturday’s final. The 30 wins are the most since the 1978 team finished 31-24-2. The .909 winning percentage is a school record, surpassing the .788 mark set by the 26-7 team in 2012.
• Kansas associate head coach Laura Kuhn was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association National Assistant Coach of the Year at a banquet earlier on Thursday.
• Janae Hall won the Elite 90 award for having the top GPA of any student-athlete to qualify for Omaha.
• The Kansas starting line-up of Ainise Havili, Tiana Dockery, Madison Rigdon, Kelsie Payne, Tayler Soucie, Janae Hall and libero Cassie Wait started together for the 31st time in 33 matches this season.
• Kelsie Payne had her 29th match this fall with 10 or more kills, and seventh straight. Payne owns double-figure kills in all six career NCAA Tournament matches.
• Tiana Dockery surpassed the 900 kill milestone in her career with a putaway to make it 6-4 in the first set.
• After being aced only 61 times in 32 matches, the Jayhawks were aced three times in the first set.
• Kansas did not have an ace until a service winner from Anna Church gave the Jayhawks a 22-18 lead late in the third set. It was KU’s only ace of the evening.
• KU’s All-American setter Ainise Havili had a career-high eight kills. Her season and career-high entering the day had been seven at Kansas State on Nov. 25, 2015.
• Kansas had six blocks in the third set after just one stuff in the opening two sets combined.
• Kansas falls to 16-1 in non-conference matches this fall.
• Kansas fell to 27-2 this year when owning more kills than its opponent. KU led that category 56-50 against the Cornhuskers on Thursday.
• Kelsie Payne ends her sophomore season with a school-record 496 kills. Her 22 kills tonight were her eighth contest this fall with 20 or more putaways.
• Kansas libero Cassie Wait finished with 23 digs, her 12th match with 20 or more digs this season.
• Kansas finished the season 10-2 in the fourth set of matches this season. The Jayhawks won their first 10 such contests before dropping the fourth set last Saturday vs. USC and tonight’s fourth set vs. Nebraska.
COACH BECHARD: I would really like to thank the city of Omaha and the NCAA committee, University of Nebraska and all the hosts that are making this a really special event for our team. They treated us like we were one of the best and it was a really cool deal. I know the players feel that same way. I would like to congratulate Texas and Nebraska for advancing.
Should be a great match on Saturday. We just weren’t good enough tonight in a couple phases of the game. Our serving has been up-and-down a little bit all year, but our passing has been pretty solid, and those two things put us in a hole in the first two sets. We managed that better in the third set, but the fourth set got away from us a little bit. Couldn’t be more proud to be represented with this group and the work we got done and I guess we can say that the three losses we had are to the teams that are playing for the national championship.
Q. Nebraska wanted to talk a lot about the performance of Kelsie Payne tonight. Would you talk about Kelsie’s performance and then Kelsie, would you talk about your performance, please. COACH BECHARD: 22 kills, three errors on 33 swings. She hit .576 and everybody knew we were going to her. She was outstanding. And there’s a reason while she will walk on the stage tomorrow morning as a first team All-American. I couldn’t be more proud of this kid. She, we had her make a position change this past spring from middle to right side and she did an unbelievable job. She’s just going to continue to get better. But I thought that performance was as good as any that we saw in either match tonight.
KELSIE PAYNE: Yeah, it was a lot of fun to play in front of that huge crowd and it’s easy to play well when you have people behind you that are playing even better and when you have liberos that are digging everything up and setters that are setting up every ball perfectly it’s easy to have 22 kills, I guess, so.
Q. What were they able to do defensively against all your other hitters? You guys ended up hitting .159 as a team, despite what Kelsie was able to do.
COACH BECHARD: Well, when you don’t pass the ball as well as we’re accustomed to, we get pretty predictable and we made it tough on Dockery and Rigdon, because we gave them some stuff that was tough to deal with and then when you play a physical team that’s organized like Nebraska, Ainise will be the first to say she could have spaced the ball a little better at times. We could have been a little smarter with some shot selection. So, yeah, we just weren’t in system enough in system meaning our setter didn’t have as many choices as she needed to have. But they did a great job on both our outside attackers.
Q. Nebraska spreads the ball to a lot of attackers, but I don’t know that a lot of people would have foreseen CeCe Hall having 10 kills on 18 swings. Where did she factor into your scouting report amongst all the other players that Nebraska puts out there?
COACH BECHARD: We talked about balance all week. She doesn’t have the kill per set as others but she’s very efficient. And when you get a little bit spread and you get to thinking about number 2, No. 6, then they did a nice job, Hunter did a really nice job of finding her and she created some opportunities for them.
Q. For any of the players in the first set there was 17-18 and it looked like you had them scrambling and then their girl chases the ball down to the scorer’s table, cuts it back over the net and somehow it goes in and they win the point, it’s 19-17 instead of tied. Do you remember that play and do you think that swung that first set at all, just sort of a deflating moment.
TAYLER SOUCIE: It was a lucky play by them and it’s always a momentum shift when you get the ball to roll your way one time and then that little bit of a difference kind of had us on edge and we weren’t passing quite well enough to keep our team in system and point score as well, and then point score as well as we wanted to when we were serving.
COACH BECHARD: I remember that play. I think that was absolutely a huge swing because it looked like it was an impossible angle and everybody that saw it said it was good and that should have been a play that we could have converted on at that point in that first set. That was a pretty big swing.
Q. Ainise, it’s still a raw loss that just happened, it’s still raw, but give us some thoughts about the ride you guys had this season.
AINISE HAVILI: It’s been an unforgettable journey, really proud of this team, really proud of every single person on this team. We got better every day in practice. We got better every team we played. This sucks and everybody hates this feeling, but that comes with the sport and we’re going to come back and work hard and comeback next year.
Q. Kelsie, when you rotated out that final time, did you think that there was anyway that you would not be coming back into the match?
KELSIE PAYNE: No, I didn’t think that. Our team recently has been really good at coming back when it’s late in the game, so I had every thought that we would make a run back in the end. But we didn’t, so. Tough.
Q. Yesterday you said that you promised your players they would get a match against Nebraska. Would you like to play Nebraska in the regular season? Would you like to get into a rotation with them?
COACH BECHARD: Yeah, I think it would be a great idea. How scheduling goes, you know, we only have so many weekend that we deal with and we like to be at home and I’m sure they like to be at home. But it would make sense in my opinion because I think playing a team like that only makes you better and gives you an opportunity to work on things, so in situations like this, you might be a little bit better prepared next time around. But we saw Texas twice, we saw some other great teams within our league, but with the proximity with Nebraska, certainly it would make sense.
Q. You talked a little bit yesterday about the need to serve very aggressively in order to take Nebraska out of system. Do you think maybe early you were
a little bit too aggressive, seven service errors in the first two sets. You almost could have been taking that first game you would have been right there without all of the service errors.
COACH BECHARD: Yeah, if you follow our team, you would know that we’re an interesting serving group. But, yes, we had seven at the break and we only had two after that. So I thought that was a big part of us kind of getting things level in the third set and working into the fourth set. But, yeah, that was huge back to
back maybe four in the first set, that when you look at a game that’s kind of in the balance, obviously that’s a
big difference. But we got to go, we got to get people out of system so we got to go for it, but they served tough, too. They served in. So, this spring I’m guaranteeing you we’ll spend a lot of time on that.
Q. About the serving again, Nebraska speculated that maybe the crowd was a factor in some of the early jitters for you guys. Is that air, or was it just your own performance?
COACH BECHARD: Crowd was, I thought the crowd was great. I think it’s just not only the crowd, the atmosphere, the first time of being on this stage, but you got to adapt to that. We tried to put pressure on them each day in practice, but we don’t have 17 thousand people dressed in red in our gym, so but we try to put a level of pressure on them and we’ll continue to try to do that.
Q. Kelsie and for all the players, what were the emotions like tonight just playing in front of that crowd and being on this stage as coach alluded to?
KELSIE PAYNE: It was exciting. It’s an awesome opportunity and we were pumped to get out there and play and the ball didn’t fall our way we didn’t play the game maybe we wanted to play, but definitely it’s an awesome experience and like we said, I think we can just take this and run with it. We’re going to make it a standard, not so much a goal any more.
TAYLER SOUCIE: We’re all really proud of how far we have come as a program and as a team this year, we started 19-0 which was awesome and then we had a loss to Texas and then we fought back and then another loss to Texas and we made a great run after that and made it all the way to the Final Four for the first time in school history so I think we’re all just really proud to be here.
AINISE HAVILI: Just what they said. It’s been a great year, it’s been fun. Really proud of this team. We fight hard and we showed that tonight in front of 17 thousand people, so can’t ask for more.
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