VILLANOVA, Pa. – Across the net from the defending national champions, No. 24 Kansas turned a grueling first-set loss into back-to-back battles in the sets that followed until No. 3 Penn State closed the door on the Jayhawks. The Nittany Lions defeated the Jayhawks in three sets, 10-25, 25-27, 23-25.
The two remaining unbeaten teams in the Villanova Classic, Kansas (9-2) and Penn State (8-1) squared off for the first time in program history in the tournament championship. The pinnacle of collegiate volleyball, the Nittany Lions have won five of the last seven national championships and six overall, tying for the most in the NCAA. Opposing head coach Russ Rose is a five-time National Coach of the Year, and has led his squad to 16 Big Ten Championships and 10 of the last 11. His team can play.
In spite of the loss, the Jayhawks showed that they can, too. After enduring a brutal first-set loss that saw PSU strike for 17 kills and only one error, the Jayhawks refused to be humiliated at their own game. Led by 11 kills from freshman outside hitter Madison Rigdon, KU halted the blowout and forced Penn State to the minimum two-point victory in the last two sets. A three-set loss wasn’t the plan, but aside from their loss to then-No. 2 Stanford, Penn State hasn’t had to win sets by the minimum margin in more than one set all season.
“There are some things to take away from this to feel good about, but we won’t settle for a three-set loss either,” head coach Ray Bechard said. “Even though sets two and three were close, you’ve got to find a way to at least get one of those to extend the match.”
Following the match, Kansas senior outside hitter Chelsea Albers and sophomore libero Cassie Wait earned All-Tournament Team honors. The duo led the Jayhawks to a 3-1 finish in the Villanova Classic. For the weekend, Albers paced the team with 44 kills and a 3.38 kill average. She finished second to Wait with her 2.92 digs per set. Wait was a work horse all weekend, leading her team with a 4.38 dig average.
On the opposing side, redshirt junior Aiyana Whitney set the tone with 13 kills on a match-high .571 attack percentage. Senior middle blocker Nia Grant joined her in double figures with 10 kills, while the duo combined for nine blocks. First Team All-American setter Micha Hancock dished out 34 assists to a team that entered the weekend leading the nation in attack percentage. Penn State hit .319 to KU’s .134, the first time Kansas has allowed an opponent to hit above .200 for the first time this season. Where Hancock really made her presence, however, was with her patented left-handed jump serve. She racked up six aces on the night.
Hancock aced a serve for the first point of the night, and moments later she showed off her attack prowess, as well. Kansas answered with kills from Cheadle and McClinton, but Penn State was ruthless. When Hancock’s serve came back around, she served for seven-straight points. Albers broke up the scoring rally with a kill, but by then the Jayhawks were facing a 20-7 deficit. With Penn State swinging at a forceful .593 clip, the Nittany Lions took set one in a hurry, 25-10.
Trying to erase an overwhelming first set, Kansas went right back at it to take an early 5-4 advantage in set two. The Nittany Lions came down hard to retake the lead, sprinting out to a 10-1 run and again KU fell into a deep deficit. Armed with nothing to lose, the Jayhawks clawed back. Cheadle swung hard for a kill before Rigdon followed with a service ace. Penn State stretched the lead to 19-11, but Kansas kept coming. Albers and junior outside hitter Tiana Dockery cut the lead to five and a block narrowed it further. Back-to-back Penn State errors gave the Jayhawks the opportunity to tie it – and they took it.
Rigdon went on a roll, busting out kills to tie the score at 21-21, 22-22, 23-23. Determined to put the set away, Penn State killed a ball to move to set point. Again, Rigdon retaliated, helping the Jayhawks fight off set point twice. She finished the set leading all players with her five kills as Kansas finished the frame on a 14-8 run. Ultimately, the Nittany Lions took a 2-0 lead to break after stealing set two, 27-25.
Penn State never established the same lead in the third set as Kansas kept it close throughout. A big block by Albers and sophomore middle blocker Tayler Soucie put the Jayhawks in front, 8-6, appeared to be in position to withstand the ensuing Penn State attack. Rigdon connected on one of her two aces to tie the score at 22-22. Fighting to extend the match, Cheadle and Dockery teamed up for a block and the 23-22 lead. Kills from PSU’s freshman phenom Ali Frantti and Whitney struck for back-to-back kills to thwart the Jayhawks’ comeback effort
* Head coach Ray Bechard sits at career win No. 998 after the conclusion of the Villanova Classic.
* Senior outside hitter Sara McClinton needs 75 kills to pass Jana Correa (1,131; 2003-06) for 10th on the all-time Kansas career list.
* Sophomore libero Cassie Wait’s 12 digs tied for the match-high as she collected All-Tournament Team honors for the first time in her career.
No. 24 Kansas returns to Lawrence to host its final pre-conference tournament of the fall, the Jayhawk Classic. KU will welcome North Texas, Cleveland State and Arkansas to the Horejsi Family Athletics Center, Sept. 19-20.