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Creighton celebrates a point in its win over Arkansas on Friday.
Courtesy: Laura Jacobsen

Big Block Lifts Creighton Past Arkansas in NCAA Opener

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Kelli Browning had 15 kills and 11 blocks to pace the Creighton Volleyball team to a 3-1 victory over Arkansas in first round action of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament in Lawrence, Kan., on Friday.

Held without a block in the first set, Creighton's (23-8)  formidable front line combined for 17.5 blocks in the final three frames to take a 22-25, 25-14, 25-22, 26-24 victory.



Creighton led most of the first set, scoring the first four points and racing to an 10-5 lead and prompt a Razorbacks timeout. Arkansas slowly crept closer, tying the score at 16, 17, 18 and 19 all before taking its first lead at 20-19. Arkansas would not trail again in the set, winning 25-22. Leah McNary led CU with five kills in eight swings and Michelle Sicner had 14 assists, but it wasn't enough. Hayley Koop and Meredith Hays each had four kills to pace an Arkansas team that hit .394, including the set-clincher by Hays.

After not having a block in the first set, a Creighton front line that ranks second nationally in blocks per set made its presence known. CU had rejections on two of the first three points to go up 3-0. After a sideout, Jess Bird served the Jays into a 9-0 run that forced the Razorbacks staff to burn both timeouts. The CU lead never dropped below five again and the set was capped by consecutive rejections by McNary and Lauren Smith. Creighton had 6.5 blocks in the second set, holding Arkansas to -.048 hitting.

Creighton had five more blocks in the third set, pulling away to take a 25-22 victory and own a 2-1 advantage in the contest. Browning had five kills in six kills and added four rejections to pace CU. Creighton trailed 9-7 before a critical 8-1 run put them in the lead for good. A kill from Bird closed out the set with CU hitting .387.

Consecutive aces from Kate Elman helped Creighton take a 3-0 lead to open the fourth set, only to see Arkansas come back to move ahead 11-10. The Jays fell behind 18-14 and things looked grim after falling behind 23-19 and using its final timeout. The break led to an Arkansas service error, and Bird had a kill before teaming up with Browning to cut Arkansas' lead to 23-22. A Razorback sideout gave Arkansas a pair of set point opportunities, but Creighton dug deep. A kill from Browning, followed by a Browning and McNary double-block tied the score at 24. McNary then pounded a kill to force match point before Browning and Sicner stuffed Hayley Koop on match point for the win.

Browning led all players with 15 kills on .522 hitting, adding 11 blocks for her seventh career kill/block double-double. McNary had 14 kills on .312 hitting, while Sicner had a double-double with 45 assists and 10 digs to go with six blocks. Ashley Jansen dug a season-high 16 digs, while Elman provided 14 digs in the contest. Creighton finished with 52 kills, two aces, 60 digs and 17.5 blocks on .250 hitting.

Arkansas (16-14) tallied 51 kills, five aces, 58 digs and six blocks on the night while hitting .142. Koop and Barbara Dapic each had 11 kills, but CU kept all-SEC performer Meredith Hays to seven kills on .-032 hitting in 31 swings. Emily Helm led the Razorback defense with 29 digs.

With the win, Creighton advances to play No. 14 national seed Kansas (24-7) on Saturday at 6:30 pm after the host Jayhawks defeated Wichita State (25-23, 25-19, 20-25, 25-22). That match will also air on ESPN3. Creighton defeated the Jayhawks in four sets in Omaha on September 10th.


NOTES: Creighton remains one of eight teams in history to win at least one match in every NCAA Volleyball Tournament appearance in school history ... Creighton has won eight of its last 10 matches, and its 23 wins this year are second-most in program history ... Michelle Sicner had her 17th double-double of the year (24th career), while Kelli Browning had her second (seventh career) .. Creighton improved to 7-6 this season when dropping the first set ... Kelli Browning now owns 178 blocks this season, second-most in school history behind her nation-leading  204 last year ... Creighton's 33 block assists were eighth-most in school history for a match ... Creighton's 358.5 blocks this season trail only last year's 379.0 ...In three career NCAA Tournament matches, Kelli Browning is averaging 3.28 kills and 1.82 blocks per set on .525 hitting.


Postmatch Quotes
Creighton head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth


Opening Statement:

“Arkansas is a great team and we knew coming in that we would be in for a battle and we talked to the players. I think every coach in this four-person pod told their team you can lose to any team and you can beat any team. I know Robbie (Arkansas head coach Robert Pulliza) and I talked about that last night and that was the case; obviously, the match could have gone either way. I thought in the first game we got off to a quick start and we talked about it in the locker room as a team; (it) could be us, (or) could be them (that) would get off to a quick start. Nerves play a factor and what I thought is that our nerves set in midway through game one when Arkansas made that run. I thought we got tentative and (we) had zero blocks and blocking is a key part of our defense. After game one we challenged them to relax, be aggressive and play our game. I thought our blocking was really the difference in the match; (it) took over the match and that led to our defense being able to play behind it. Great win for these young women, Arkansas is a very-well coached team and has some spectacular players and we were fortunate enough to come out with a win tonight.”

 

On the difference between the first set and the last three:

“I always think these guys follow a game plan so well. We felt like we had pretty good percentages of where Arkansas was going to go and so we were able to get doubles. The fact is, you could lose two next to each other and it’s tough to get around. We have some good blockers on our team. It wasn’t a technique thing. I don’t think I ever talked about technique.”

On what the keys in the win were, and her thoughts on getting off to a fast start:

“That’s been an Achilles’ heel for us this year. It didn’t have anything to do with me. I think we did come out strong and once we do get that lead, we get into a rhythm. I can always tell when we’re in a rhythm and when we’re losing a rhythm. For most of the night, we were in that rhythm and when we lost it we did a great job of getting it back.”

On the difference of being loose in the game:

“Arkansas swings hard every time they go up. I mean, they have some kids that just rocket balls so our defense needed to be lower on contact so they weren’t popping up to the ball. They needed to be as low as possible to give them as much time to move and I thought we did a good job of that. I think our block had a huge part in that, as soon as you close then you limit the area of the court they can hit around. I thought Kate Elman did a great job of once that block was closed, getting a hard angle because we knew both their outsides had that hard-angle shot and Kate sometimes likes to cheat. So we kept saying ‘get your butt on that sideline’ and she did it and I thought she did a great job.”

On facing either Kansas or Wichita State:

 

“The interesting thing with the three of us is we all know each other. We talked about it in the locker room, both the teams we could end up playing are fantastic teams. Wichita State has one of the best setters in the country, highly active; one of the best middles in the country and we were in the same league with them. We played them earlier in the year and we know Wichita inside and out, just as they know us inside and out. KU has such offensive parity. I just think they’ve got weapons all over the place. They have a lot of seniors, led by Caroline Jarmoc. You guys may think a different kid but they also have local kids from Omaha so that even makes it bigger that our players know a lot of their players. We’re excited to play either team and I think it’s nice that we can go out there and be totally focused. This team is really cognitive so they’ll be locked in to what’s going on and making sure they’re really paying attention during the next match so we can figure out their rhythm and be ready to go tomorrow night.”

On how close this team is to reaching its full potential:

“I think we can play better; I look at a couple things, I think that’s natural. Volleyball is a game of errors. We did a lot of good things tonight but I look at a couple of positions and think they didn’t have their best night. I know what they’re capable of doing and we’ve talked about it. Our strength is our offensive parity; we’ve got great hitters all over the place and we’re going to be very tough if everyone peaks at the same time. Two of our key players had great nights tonight and that’s going to lead to success and the hope is we’re doing that everywhere. I think the key to tomorrow night is serving and passing regardless of who we play. KU and Wichita are really lethal so we’re going to have to be really good at the fundamentals of volleyball tomorrow night to be successful.”

 

 

Creighton junior MB Kelli Browning
On the difference between the first set and the last three:

“I know that from a middle standpoint Lauren Smith and I were saying we need to be a lot more vocal out there with blocking. I think we picked that up in the second set and I think that made a big difference.”

 

On what she was seeing out on the floor and where she thought she could attack the Arkansas defense:

“Our defense behind us did a great job. Michelle Sicner was putting up great balls for us and really ran a great offense. Yes, Leah and I played well tonight but those accolades go to the entire team, not just us two.”

 

On what it means to advance to the second round for the second-straight year:

“I mean this is huge for us and we’re so excited. I think you could see our excitement on the court when we ended. Words can’t describe it. We were in this position last year and we know how it felt to lose this next game, so I think it’s that much more motivating for us.”

 

On what was going through her mind trailing late in the fourth set:

“I think Kate Elman said ‘Let’s finish this in four’ and we knew we had to put up a big block to do that. Our defense had to work hard behind us and we were all just on the same page. It was an awesome feeling to see the team come together at that moment.”

 

On if she can still see the team’s goal of reaching the Sweet 16:

“Absolutely. We have that goal board up in our locker room that we see every day and even before this game we said let’s show what we’ve been working for all year. This win was so great and Arkansas was a great team. It was a great win, but I think we’re ready for the next step.”

 

On how close this team is to reaching its full potential:

“I don’t think by any means that this was our best game ever or the best that we can play, but I think we’re getting there and this is the time of the season to peak. I think we’re making the right steps to get there.”

Creighton junior OH Leah McNary
On what she was seeing out on the floor and where she thought she could attack the Arkansas defense:

“I think that the biggest part was Michelle (Sincer) giving us some great balls. I know (head coach) Kirsten (Bernthal Booth) tells us to go up and swing hard and I think that’s what Kelli (Browning) and I were doing.”

 On what it means to advance to the second round for the second-straight year:

“I think we knew we were going to have to work hard to win, but I think we wanted to show people what we’re about.”

On what was going through her mind trailing late in the fourth set:

“I think we do better at crunch time so we played really well together at the end.”

On how close this team is to reaching their full potential:

“I think a key point to say is peaking at the right time and I think that we are. We have a special team and I think that we could go far in the tournament if we play together and work hard.”

Arkansas head coach Robert Pulliza
On Creighton winning 3-1 to advance to the Second Round:
“They had better plays than us. That’s what it takes to advance. You have to actually get it in the end and they did a really good job, so congrats to them.”

Arkansas senior S Raymariely Santos
On what she was feeling after being on the Razorback team for four years:
“Being here for four years, my last two years we’ve made it to the NCAA Tournament and it’s the most amazing feeling ever. These girls give their hardest and they work really hard every day to give us, the seniors, what we wanted to accomplish. We obviously wanted more, but I’m proud of them and I know Coach is going to get them going so we can make a round next year.”

Arkansas senior L/DS Emily Helm
On what she hopes for her teammates in the future:
“I just think we’ve set the standard; just making the (NCAA) Tournament isn’t where we need to be now. They need to realize we need to advance and we didn’t do it this year. But I think we (the senior class) instilled in them our work ethic and hopefully they’ll carry that on, keep working hard, and they have a bright future.”

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