LINCOLN, Neb. — The Kansas State volleyball team’s season came to an end Thursday afternoon as the Wildcats dropped their match in the first round of the NCAA tournament to the Northern Iowa Panthers at NU Coliseum.
The Wildcats fell in straight sets for just the fourth time this season — 18-25, 13-25, 21-25 — and did not advance to the second round for only the third time in 14 trips to the NCAA tournament.
K-State (21-9) had no players reach double digits in kills, with junior middle blocker Kaitlynn Pelger leading the way with seven. Senior opposite Kathleen Ludwig had six kills and paced the team with a .462 hitting percentage. Junior outside hitter Courtney Traxson also had six kills.
Senior setter Caitlyn Donahue had 25 assists and eight digs for the Wildcats in her last match, while also getting involved on offense with four kills.
Senior libero Kuulei Kabalis had 11 digs to lead the team defensively, and fellow senior middle blocker Alex Muff tallied three kills and two blocks.
UNI (25-9) hit .321 as a team, compared to K-State’s .164. Three Panthers all posted 11 kills to lead the team. Megan Lehman, Macy Ubben and Krista Degeest all helped the Panthers to the victory with each also hitting at least .381.
Setter Molly Turk had a double-double for the Panthers with 36 assists and 14 digs to lead the team in both categories.
“I thought that Northern Iowa was incredibly well prepared,” K-State coach Suzie Fritz said. “I thought they played really well. We struggled getting balls to the floor — defensively they played phenomenally well and offensively played really well.
“They were in system the majority of the time and I thought we got outplayed in every facet of the game, frankly.”
The Wildcats fell behind early with a series of errors, combined with a solid attack from Northern Iowa. K-State was able to fight back within a point, but a quick 5-2 run extended the lead back to four points for the Panthers.
K-State could not build any momentum as the Wildcats failed to score three consecutive points in the set, allowing UNI to build its lead up to as many as eight points and eventually win 25-18.
UNI hit .424 in the opening set led by Lehman’s four kills on six swings. The Wildcats had three different players post three kills, but the hitting percentage of .265 could not keep up with the Panthers to start the match.
K-State could not get into a rhythm on offense in the second set either, scoring consecutive points only twice and again never going on a 3-0 run. The Panthers had a sideout percentage of 85.7 in the second with K-State scoring only twice on its own serve falling 13-25.
The Panthers were able to go on a 5-0 run early and grab a 6-2 lead. K-State would limit UNI to small bursts of two or three points, but could not cut into the lead due to the Wildcats not being able to string points together themselves in the set.
In the third set, the Wildcats took an early lead and appeared to have found its offense with three quick kills from Pelger. With K-State up 5-2, UNI would take control following a service error from Pelger. A block and back-to-back kills gave the Panthers a 6-5 lead. Two quick points for the Wildcats would reclaim the lead, but only for a moment.
UNI would use another run of strong offense to take the lead and not surrender it on its way to the sweep.
K-State could not slow the Panthers as they put together multiple runs, while the Wildcats could not until late. A 4-0 run from the Wildcats after two errors from UNI pulled K-State within two points. UNI responded by halting the run and eventually closed the door 25-21 with a kill by Ubben.
The loss ends K-State’s season with a 21-9 record. It was the Wildcats 14th trip to the NCAA tournament and only the third time the Wildcats have fallen in the first round.
Ludwig said she and her teammates went into the postseason ready with a clean slate and unfortunately came up short against a Northern Iowa team she said earned a victory to move on and play in the final match at historic NU Coliseum tonight.
“We walked into it as it’s a new year — it’s a new tournament, we’re a different team,” she said. “This entire season we’ve tried to start fresh. We approached it as let’s try to go 1-0. Let’s see what we can do, be who we are in a different arena, but absolutely, it’s disappointing.
“We wanted to do what we do and I don’t think we were able to do that as much and like Suzie said, they played wonderfully. They played lights out and they gave it everything they had and they are very well deserving of that win for sure.”