Nearly 45 minutes after their college volleyball careers came to an abrupt end, Kansas seniors Sara McClinton and Chelsea Albers emerged from the locker room to a resounding round of applause in the previously silent Kansas Expocentre.
The pair, who leave KU after the most successful three-year postseason run in program history, hugged loved ones and were urged to remember the good times — which was not easy after a five-set loss to Arkansas-Little Rock in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night.
“We were looking to go out in a significant way and this loss is not what we were pushing for,” Albers said. “But, looking back on the last four years we have had great teams, great teammates, awesome coaches and we are blessed to have been here.”
The two teams were evenly matched from the start playing to nine ties and three lead changes before Arkansas-Little Rock pulled away with a 27-25 victory in the first set.
The Jayhawks, who were the 16th of 16 national seeds in the 64-team tournament, bounced back to take the next two 25-19 and 25-22 but lost the fourth 25-18.
“That first set is one people aren’t going to look on but we are,” KU coach Ray Bechard said. “We had 23 all and 24 all with the ball on our side and couldn’t convert. We settled down in two and three but when you’re up 2-1 you have to have a better response.”
Fifth sets had been troublesome territory for the Jayhawks this season. In fact, their only five-set victory in five tries came less than a week ago on senior night against Texas.
Bechard said the Jayhawks would have easily traded that result on Friday night, when they dropped the fifth set 15-10.
“I’m extremely disappointed because that was not our best effort or execution, but that is the abruptness of this tournament,” Bechard said. “If you don’t play at the level that you really need to play at a good team is going to hang around and persevere. We erred too much tonight.”
To be exact, the Jayhawks had 40 errors in five sets compared to just 23 by the Trojans.
One positive for the Jayhawks is the fact that they return 12 players for next year’s squad including setter Ainise Havili who set the all-time freshman assist record at Kansas in the loss. Fellow freshman Kelsie Payne added a career-high 15 kills.
The loss was the first by KU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in three years. The Jayhawks reached the second round in 2012 and the Sweet 16 last year.
“We hope that as we leave we can impart to our underclassmen that they need to be in the NCAA Tournament every year,” McClinton said. “They know how hard we have to work and hopefully they are more successful next year.”
Kansas State’s season also came to an end Friday night as the Wildcats lost 25-16, 25-16, 25-17 to No. 20 Utah in Lincoln, Neb. The Wildcats finished 22-9, the program’s best record since 2008.