Big 12 action now, as the defending national champions Texas head to Lawrence, Kansas to face a team I like quite a bit, but who aren't ranked in the national poll. That's the Kansas Jayhawks. Both teams come into tonight unbeaten in Big 12 play, and this would seem to be one of the only potentially possible conference losses Texas might have at any point (I'd point the return match in Austin squarely in their favour).
The two teams both rate quite well in the only-recently-available RPI ranking, with Texas at the very top of that ranking and the Jayhawks a healthy 14th. Texas are a doubtless Final Four contender, while for Kansas they should still make the tournament, though hosting again seems unlikely. In this matchup, you've got one pretty good team, and one realistic national championship contender. It seems a bit of a mismatch, with KU's home floor possibly levelling it a bit.
The Jayhawks were a little slow out of the gates, with their top scorer, incumbent All-American Caroline Jarmoc committing some uncharacteristic hitting and serving errors to give the Longhorns an advantage that no team can afford to give them. Texas' twin terrors Haley Eckerman and Bailey Webster provided solid scoring themselves, and Texas led by four in the early going before something of a sideout pattern resulted. Tiana Dockery and Tayler Soucie took one back to make it 9-7 as they rejected Webster with the double block. But after the Texas sideout, back-to-back big serves from Eckerman both led to points, and Kansas called time down 12-7.
Khat Bell and Hannah Allison tossed up the double block after the timeout, giving the Longhorns their biggest lead of the match so far at six. Chelsea Albers gave the Jayhawks their sideout on 13-8, and more importantly getting Eckerman off serve. 14-8 was the first particularly long rally of the match, ending with Dockery hitting too long for another point to Texas. Molly McCage found the floor on the next rally to get the Horns double up on the Hawks, at 16-8. On 17-10, Kansas peeled back a service point with Jarmoc impressively beating what looked to be a well-formed triple block on the Texas side. The next serve for Kansas found only the net, so no momentum was built.
Kansas were able to hang with Texas….a little….in this set, but they just had no margin for error. Already facing a pretty substantial deficit, they made no real inroads the rest of the set. The lead was anywhere from six to eight points prior to set point at 24-16. Albers staved off the reception point for Kansas with a kill off the tip shot, but Texas setter Allison finished it off a rally later with a first-ball sideout dump shot kill.
The classic 1-2 punch, Bailey & Haley, started set 2 off for the Longhorns, getting them their first two points. On the 2-0 rally, the Jayhawks came up with two practically miraculous digs, with libero Brianne Riley and DS Cassie Wait keeping the ball up when it looked for all the world like it was down. But Texas still got the point, on a double block up the gut. Kansas got the next two, but on 3-2 Bell came up with a solo block to sort of middle-right side, keeping Texas in the lead. From 5-3, the Texas block rejected Albers on consecutive rallies, getting them to a four-point lead. Webster then found the floor on a comparatively pretty easy shot to dig, leading to 8-3 and a Kansas timeout.
The Jayhawks drew back a couple after the timeout, but just as quickly the pendulum swung back Texas' way. A kill for freshman Chiaka Ogbogu re-established the Longhorns' five-point lead. A hitting error got the Jayhawks their sideout, and at that point they'd been given more of their points on service errors (4) than they'd gotten on their own merits (3). Kills for Eckerman and a hitting error from Dockery led to the Texas lead growing further, and Eckerman rotated back to serve up 14-8. Then for perhaps the first time all night, the Jayhawks won a long rally, as the point ended with Webster aiming for the back line but going long. Just like in set 1, Kansas seemed like they could at best go sideout-for-sideout. Texas expanded to a seven-point lead at 16-9 with a kill from Webster, and Kansas called their last timeout.
Texas' passing got especially dodgy as set 2 wore on, leading to some surprisingly easy points for the Jayhawks. Riley's serve befuddled the Texas back row, leading to easy kills off the overpass for Soucie and Dockery within seconds of each other. That finished off a 5-2 run since the timeout, drawing Kansas within four at 18-14. Texas then took their first timeout of the night.
Jarmoc kept the ball rolling after the timeout, with a kill up the gut to make it 18-15. As the TV cameras were showing a replay of that, Riley snuck in an ace to make it a two-point set. Dockery came within inches of having a block-out kill to get the Jayhawks within a point, but the block was ruled in. Bell went up unopposed from the middle on 19-16, and she's not gonna lose any of those. Jarmoc and Dockery put up the double block against Ogbagu to make it 20-17, the first block of the set for Kansas. A rare unforced hitting error from Eckerman brought Kansas back within two. On the right side, Jarmoc and Erin McNorton went sky-high for another block, and Texas called their last timeout with their lead whittled to just a point at 20-19.
The Jayhawks came level at 20-all on the first rally after the timeout, as Eckerman hit wide. Backup Maggie Anderson's service run ended on the next attempt, as the ball sailed just long. On 21-all, Jarmoc's block against Eckerman on the left side gave Kansas their first lead in quite a while at 22-21. After Bell's sideout to make it 22-all, the lethal Eckerman rotated back to the service line. But as if buoyed by the roaring home fans, the Jayhawks got a first-ball sideout with Sara McClinton on the left side. At 23-all, Allison got Texas a big block to afford the Longhorns the first crack at set point. Soucie staved it off, and we marched on to extras.
Another big kill for McClinton got Kansas their first set point. And one was all they needed, as she found the floor once again for a 26-24 final. The home fans roared.
Texas started off set 3 with three on the bump, before Jarmoc found a seam in the block on the right-side slide attack to side the Jayhawks out. She then rotated back to serve, and took one back as Webster hit wide. The big Texas front line brought the Longhorns to a three-point lead again at 5-2, and then a long rally ended with Webster finding the floor for 6-2. McClinton, who really heated up as the match wore on, got the kill and sideout to make it 6-3. Eckerman then "over-dug" the ball off Albers' swing, drawing Kansas a point closer.
At 8-4, a kind of complicated play developed. Kansas setter McNorton was back-row, and appeared to play the ball over the net. Can't do that. But Ogbagu on the other side overreached and played the ball while it was still entirely on Kansas' side. You can't do that either. The violation that was whistled went against Texas. Elliott and his floor captain protested the call, but it stood. Texas kept up the pressure, seeming to get two points for every one Kansas got. When Dockery's hitting error long hit the floor to make it 12-6 Longhorns, the crowd sounded much quieter than they had been earlier in the evening. The net fault against Dockery a short while later kept Texas doubled up on Kansas, at 14-7, and the Jayhawks called time.
Kansas took one back on the rally at 15-8, as Webster tried for a soft little push shot, but failed to clear the net in so doing. The Longhorns got the point back on their serve at 17-11, when Soucie was whistled for a net fault. Ogbagu and Webster put up the double block against McClinton on the next rally, and Texas led by a healthy 8 points. 19-11 was an awkward rally, with neither side really looking like they knew what they were doing. Kansas libero Riley tried a bump set that flew over the net — and hit Texas blocker Ogbagu in the head on its way to the floor. But it was falling so slowly. Hard to see how she couldn't get out of the way or, better still, make something of the play.
Texas made it back to 8 at 21-13 with McCage's right-side slide kill, but that touched off a good run for the Jayhawks. Kansas kept everything off the floor, even as the soaring eagles Webster and Eckerman hit as high off the ground and with as sharp an angle as ever. They made it within five on 22-17 before Texas coach Jerritt Elliott called time, as those digs led to kills for Sara McClinton.
Webster and Eckerman drew Kansas back within three after the timeout, with consecutive unforced htting errors. But Bell bailed them out, getting the kill off the middle hit to bring Texas to the cusp of set point, at 23-19. On that rally, McClinton hit straight into Bell and Allison's double block, and set point came. McClinton staved off the first, on reception, but Webster got it done on the tip to close it out.
Kansas took the first two to begin set 4, and the crowd got up off their hands to cheer their team on. Eckerman went back to serve after the Longhorns sided out, but Riley seemed to receive her serve okay. The Longhorns did get one point on serve, but only one. A service ace put Kansas up again on 4-2, and on 4-3, Jarmoc's one-handed jab was ruled just out. The crowd didn't like it, and Kansas coach Ray Bechard got up to protest for a moment. Jarmoc was undeterred, getting the sideout on the next rally to keep Kansas ahead. It went sideout for sideout to Amy Neal's serve on 6-all, which resulted in an unforced hitting error by McClinton. A Hannah Allison block put the Longhorns up 8-6, and you felt like this could be the moment the match slipped away from Kansas. The crowd again were pretty quiet, and just those couple of little mistaked dug them into a hole. A long-ish rally on 8-6 went to McCage for Texas, and Kansas called time down by three.
Kansas missed an opportunity to draw one back on their own serve at 10-8, as a long rally went to the Longhorns when Bell found the floor. Texas got the next service point on 12-9, as Catherine Carmichael hit into the block on the left side, making it 13-9. The next point was the very same, and Dockery re-entered for Carmichael. That five-point lead struck me as likely insurmountable, and it became six after an Eckerman ace. Kansas took their last timeout of the set there, but the roll for Texas continued, as the Jayhawks could only side Eckerman out on a service error. The deficit reached eight at 18-10 before Eckerman's run finally ended. The Horns added another on Bell's serve, and they smelled blood in the water leading 20-12.
The teams just exchanged points for a while after that, until Texas took two on serve to get to match point at 24-14. They finished it on reception.
#3 Texas d. Kansas (25-17, 24-26, 25-20, 25-15)
Disappointing first and last sets for the Jayhawks, but it was always a pretty tall ask for them to come up with the victory tonight. They've got some good take-aways from this match. For sure, I'm a little higher on them than most everyone outside Lawrence, but you can't say they're not a tournament team at this point in time.
(For all that's worth….which is precisely a hill of beans)
McClinton led the Jayhawks in scoring with 16 kills, but she had her errors really start to pile up as the match went on. She finished 16/11/38, for .132 efficiency. Not so great. Jarmoc's 12/5/25 (.280) was better; I did somewhat feel as the match wore on that McNorton could have gone to her more (but don't we always say that about middle hitters). Albers also finished in double figures in kills, with 10 notches in her belt.
Texas likewise had three players in double figures, with Webster leading the way on a sterling 20/3/44, for .386. You'll take that every time. Eckerman had a bit of an off night hitting, at 11/6/35 (.143), though as off nights go you could do a lot worse. Bell aso checked in in double digits, getting 10 kills on the night.
But the real difference of the match was blocking. The Longhorns had 17 total team blocks to only 6 for Kansas, and were led in that department by 10 from Molly McCage (2 solos, 8 assists). The setter Hannah Allison had 8, with a solo and 7 assists. The joint-leading blockers for Kansas were Jarmoc and Soucie, who each had a comparatively meagre 3. This front-line advantage is really what propelled the Longhorns to victory tonight.
Next up for Kansas is a potentially difficult road trip, not in terms of opposition, but in terms of miles. They'll head to Texas Tech on Wednesday, and then next Saturday it's off to West Virginia. Thanks for that realignment, football. Texas' only match of the coming week is at home on Saturday against Iowa State.