Courtesy: KU Athletics
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.