KU volleyball loses to Penn State in 5 sets, falls just short of Sweet 16
Kansas volleyball fell just short of advancing past the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday in a down-to-the-wire, five-set match against No. 7 Penn State (20-25, 25-22, 21-25, 25-13, 13-15).
“It was two hours and forty minutes of really good volleyball, and it was really an honor to be a part of that with this team,” said head coach Ray Bechard. “That felt more like an Elite Eight or Final Four match tonight than it did a second-round match, so I couldn’t be prouder of our group.”
Kansas was powered offensively once again by the record-setting Reagan Cooper, while Raegan Burns and Camryn Turner held their defensive ground to keep the Jayhawks in some tough rallies.
Penn State’s big net presence made itself known early, as back-to-back blocks by Allie Holland got the night started. The Nittany Lions’ block is a big part of their game; they ranked fourth in the country in blocks per set this season. But by mixing in a few tips and resetting their offense, the Jayhawks adjusted to get back in the lead in a 6-4 game. After an 11-kill performance in the first round of the tournament, Cooper once again kept the Jayhawks afloat offensively through the first set, recording four early kills. The Jayhawks called the first timeout of the game when they were trailing 13-10, and Kansas lost the next three points, forcing Bechard to use another timeout. But the Jayhawks climbed back late, as they did in two of their three sets on Thursday, by changing their offensive approach into a quicker set by Turner and using the block to their advantage.
“We just communicated with Cam and asked for higher, tighter sets that we can reach over their block, use their block, try to tool off of them as well,” Cooper said.
Kansas trailed 20-18 as Penn State called its first timeout, and the Nittany Lions held onto the momentum, winning set one 25-20.
Turner was the story of set two, keeping the Jayhawks in a tight match. After a slow start, she was able to keep Kansas close and eventually swung the momentum with a huge solo block to tie the set at 10. The Jayhawks’ offensive balance showed up halfway through the set, as Ayah Elnady, Mykayla Myers, and London Davis got Kansas to its largest lead of the night, 19-14. A three-point run by Penn State proved the set was far from over, but the down-to-the-wire battle ended with a 25-22 win for Kansas. Two crucial blocks from Toyosi Onabanjo gave the Jayhawks the swing they needed, as they were eventually able to side out on a kill from Myers.
“This is a match where you just can’t take a break,” Bechard said. “Every point, possession and serve had a lot of significance to it. So I think for us, that was a good lesson that we hadn’t played a match like this for a while.
“The physicality of Penn State was obviously an issue, but we fought right back,” he said. “In the beginning, it looked like they were going to try and push us around, and we weren’t having it. This group drew a line in the sand and said, ‘We’re here to compete.'”
Cooper continued her offensive show in the third set, getting Kansas’ first three kills of the set. The Jayhawks settled down a bit more, going back to the fundamentals that Bechard preaches. Halfway through the set, after a few lead changes, Kansas found itself down 15-12 after a three-point Penn State run. The trade-off continued until Penn State used two blocks to go up 20-17 and force a Kansas timeout. The Jayhawks fought back, getting it to 21-20, but a three-point run by the Nittany Lions ended their chances of winning set three, and Penn State would go ahead in the match on star outside hitter Jess Mruzik’s 17th kill of the night.
The fourth set had a lead change seemingly every point until a powerful kill by Onabanjo and a rally with multiple great defensive plays by the Jayhawks gave them a 12-10 lead. Cooper’s 20th kill of the night came in the fourth, with her 21st right behind to grow the lead to 14-11. All of this turned into a dominant 8-1 run that grew Kansas’ lead to seven late in the set, with the Jayhawks’ seventh block of the game putting the score at 19-12. The ball just kept rolling for Kansas, as after Penn State got a kill, the Jayhawks rattled off yet another five-point scoring run, winning set four 25-13.
“There was so much positive energy in our huddle [going into the fourth set],” said senior Molly Schultz. “We knew that this is our home court, and we wanted to go out swinging hard.”
After an entire game of dominance, Cooper made a statement in the final set, setting a new career high in kills with 26 and continuing to add on. But Kansas ultimately fell 15-13 on a brutal service ace by Maddy Bilinovic after losing its one-point advantage late in the set.
“There’s a couple of bounces that didn’t go our way, but when it’s 15-13 in the fifth set, obviously we’ll probably scratch our heads and try to figure out what we could’ve done a little bit different,” Bechard said. “I don’t think we got beat; we just ran out of points, ran out of time. That fifth set could’ve gone on to 30 points and it would’ve been a two-point set the whole way.”
Cooper led the Jayhawks with 29 kills, tying a Kansas record in the rally-scoring era (Karina Garlington, 2008 vs. Iowa State) for most kills in a five-set match.
“I’m really proud of this team,” Cooper said. “And I’m really happy that I made the decision to come here (for my last year). I really have no regrets; I think we really laid it all out there tonight.”
Davis, after a quiet night on Thursday, stepped up and finished second in kills with 13. Onabanjo put up a brick wall of her own at the net, finishing with a team-leading four blocks, while Turner had an astounding 54 assists and four kills to add on.
Cooper’s career night came on the last game of her college career, as she and five other Jayhawks will graduate in the spring and leave their playing careers behind.