The fifth set between Kansas State and Kansas was in full swing Wednesday night when Dru Kuck crouched down, made the dig and lobbed it up. Setter Sarah Dixon settled under it and set it up perfectly for opposite hitter Gloria Mutiri, who used her quick lefty swing to belt the ball over the net.
The Wildcats went up 6-2 in the decisive fifth game.
Just like that, K-State seized the momentum that helped it overcome an 0-2 set deficit and rally to take the final three in a comeback win over KU, 3-2 (31-33, 22-25, 25-22, 25-22, 15-9), at Ahearn Fieldhouse.
The win snapped a six-game skid for the Wildcats, who now have recorded three straight wins in this Sunflower Showdown dating back to last season.
“We showed determination that I think we forgot we had in us toward that stretch in the middle,” said K-State middle blocker Peyton Williams, who logged 13 kills and six digs. “It took tremendous grit to be down two in the beginning and come back and not give up. It helps that it’s against KU — you’ve got a little extra (motivation) — but it showed a lot of perseverance from this team.”
The aforementioned play also was important because it represented a positive swing for K-State’s offense. Four Wildcats delivered double-figure kills: Anna Dixon (21), Brynn Carlson (15), Williams (13) and Mutiri (12).
That’s good news for the Wildcats (7-12, 2-5 Big 12) because, in large part, they could blame a struggling offense for the six-match losing streak they rode into Wednesday’s contest. Dixon has turned into one of the group’s most consistent contributors on that front, but K-State has had trouble replicating her production.
This season, K-State returned just 37% of its kills. Not only that, but the club also returned just two of its top seven kill-producers, Williams and Mutiri — two versatile weapons, but still only two of them.
All that changed on Wednesday. The hosts’ offense was far from perfect — they finished with an unsightly 20 service errors — but they benefited from getting kills from an array of players.
“One (part) of it is just more arms,” said K-State coach Suzie Fritz, who added that she liked the way reserve libero Jacque Smith came off the bench in Set 5 and helped the Wildcats rattle off four straight points. “More arms and maybe arms in positions where they can be more effective.
“We need ‘Glo’ (Mutiri), we need Brynn, we need Anna to be consistently good. The middles (producing) is a little like icing on the cake.”
A long first set — a tie for K-State’s longest this year, in fact — started slowly and ended dramatically. K-State used a 6-1 run to respond to an early deficit and pull even at 11-11.
For the remainder of the set, neither side was able to produce a lead wider than two points. That prolonged things even further. Even when scores reached the 30s, nothing changed.
At long last, after Mutiri produced her second kill of the match, KU (6-11, 2-5) rattled off back-to-back points — via kills from Camryn Ennis and Zoe Hill — to seal a set that featured 19 ties and eight lead changes.
Talk about a tone-setter in a rivalry contest.
The second set played out similarly, just not as long. Back-and-forth. Back-and-forth.
When it ended, though, and the Wildcats were staring down the barrel of an 0-2 deficit, they didn’t panic.
“It helped that those (first) two sets were both really close,” Williams said. “We were like, ‘We’re better than this. It’s just a couple of points that we can change. Our stuff that we can do. They weren’t doing anything special. It’s on us. We can do it.’
“It took recognizing that it’s in our court. The ball was in our court the whole time. We just had to realize that.”
For K-State, that mindset translated into the best change of pace. The Wildcats won a pair of equally narrow Sets 3 and 4.
Then, in Set 5, they bolted out to a 5-0 lead. That helped K-State stave off KU’s late rally.
It’ll also help K-State head into its Saturday road test against Iowa State riding a wave of momentum. It’s the Wildcats’ first win since Sept. 28.
“How much more can you ask?” Williams said with a hearty laugh. “I love it.”