FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KU Athletics) – Kansas was on the ropes. Dropping the first set to the undefeated home team and facing a 24-23 deficit in set two, Arkansas was one point away from a two-set lead. Kelsie Payne and Tayler Soucie turned the pressure into fuel for the Jayhawks – winning three-straight sets to claim the Arkansas Invitational crown Saturday night inside Barnhill Arena, 21-25, 27-25, 25-15, 25-15.
Each team eager to hand the other their first loss, Kansas (3-0) and Arkansas (2-1) provided a much different level of competition than the first two weekend opponents. The increased intensity was apparent immediately. Every point was a series of long rallies, diving saves and constant hustle – making for a great night of volleyball.
“In set two, we were down 22-18. Our body posture didn’t change, our communication didn’t change – we stayed true to who we are,” head coach Ray Bechard said, who logged his 298th win at Kansas. “We played well to end the second set and turn the momentum. Then, the third and fourth sets were pretty high-level volleyball on the Jayhawks’ side.”
Payne was outstanding, rising to the occasion with a career-high 19 kills and a blistering .471 attack percentage. But it was Soucie who brought the biggest half of the one-two punch with 15 kills and eight game-changing blocks. Though Arkansas won the first set hitting .423 as a team, the Kansas defense forced the Razorbacks to hit just .194 on the night.
“Ainise Havili as the MVP, I get that for sure. Kelsie Payne’s numbers were also outstanding, but Tayler Soucie really drove the energy bus tonight,” Bechard said. “She really got us going with her physicality, blocking and attacking. I hope it’s going to be tough in the future to tell who will be on the All-Tournament Team because we have such good balance.”
Balance was certainly key on Saturday night. After the Jayhawks fell behind in the first set and were in serious danger of losing another, they needed sparks wherever they could get them. The Jayhawks were all-too willing to step up. Aside from Payne and Soucie, who combined for an impressive 34 kills and four errors, sophomore outside hitter Madison Rigdon came through with 13 kills and three aces, while Tiana Dockery turned in seven kills.
Sophomore setter Ainise Havili posted her first double-double of the year and 15th of her career with 48 assists and 14 digs. For the weekend, she finished with 113 assists, nine aces and saw to it that her team hit a combined .330, making her a prime candidate for Tournament MVP honors. The unsung hero with one of the game’s most difficult roles, junior libero Cassie Wait added Outstanding Libero accolades to her resume after chalking up 20 digs in the win and 48 for the tournament.
Squaring off against junior outside hitter Pilar Victoria, a transfer player from familiar foe, Texas, had the Jayhawks’ attention heading into the match. She was solid, notching a double-double with 13 kills and 15 digs, but the Jayhawks held her to a .043 attack percentage. Senior middle blocker and All-SEC Preseason Team member Chanell Clark-Bibbs also posted 13 kills in the loss.
The opening set was a battle out of the gate as Arkansas built a quick lead and prompted the Jayhawks to race and catch up. Soucie, Rigdon and Payne each contributed four kills apiece, but Arkansas’ .423 hitting efficiency gave the Razorbacks enough of a window to win. The home team to the 1-0 lead, 25-21.
Soucie kept pace in set two, pounding out her fifth kill of the night and teaming with Havili for back-to-back blocks to put her team ahead, 7-6. Adding to it, she and Dockery went for consecutive kills to stretch to its largest lead to that point, 9-6. As expected, Arkansas came right back to knot the score at 11-11 before Soucie kicked in again. She controlled the tempo, pushing her kill total to eight as her team climbed in front, 15-13. Her first – and only – error of the night tied the score. A kill from Breana Jones coupled with an Arkansas ace saw the Razorbacks inch closer to a two-set lead, 21-18.
A momentum-grabbing block nearly took the Jayhawks out of it, falling behind 22-18. Dockery started the rally with a kill and Havili followed her with an ace to pull KU within one. Down 24-23, Payne came through one, two, three times to put the Jayhawks in front, 26-25. Unwilling to go down 0-2 on the road, the Jayhawks refused to the let ball hit the floor and put together one of the longest rallies of the match. Naturally, it was Soucie to finally put it away, 27-25.
“We never gave up, we never freaked out,” Soucie said. “Coach B keeps that mindset on us in practice, ‘Next ball. Next point.’ It worked for us.”
Winning set two added instant wind to the Jayhawks’ sails. They came out and grabbed the first six points, using three quick blocks and a kill from Rigdon to sprint out in front, 6-0. Kansas hit the gas – and Payne had the lead foot. With her 15th kill of the evening, the Jayhawks frustrated the Razorbacks with a commanding 17-9 advantage. Payne powered her squad, surging past her career-high to slam the door on a third set that was never in doubt, 25-15.
Though Arkansas knew the fourth set was must-win, the home team couldn’t stop the Jayhawk triple threat. Payne, Rigdon and Soucie connected in that order to surge forward. In no time, Payne registered two-straight kills to jolt Kansas forward, 17-9. Rigdon crushed a service ace and Soucie slammed a ball across the court to all but finish off the Razorbacks, 20-11. Havili had time to work in one last ace before Payne closed it out, 25-15.
Kansas will return home to host the Kansas Invitational, Sept. 4-5. The Jayhawks will welcome Western Illinois, No. 25 Duke and UMKC to the Horejsi Family Athletics Center.
Bechard tallied his 298th victory at Kansas against Arkansas, bringing him one step closer to being the first coach in program history to 300 wins.
The Jayhawks were nothing short of outstanding from the service line, electing to give up service errors to serve tough. It worked as KU recorded 10 aces in a match for the first time since the 2013 NCAA Tournament (vs. Wichita State, 12/6/13).
Sophomore setter Ainise Havili has been on three All-Tournament Teams prior to this weekend, but this marked her first Tournament MVP award.
Junior middle blocker Tayler Soucie’s 15 kills were one kill short of her career-high (16 vs. TCU, 10/18/14).