LAWRENCE, Kan. — When Creighton volleyball needed a big play, junior Kelli Browning was there to make it. Her timely blocking and match-best 15 kills paced the Bluejays, who defeated Arkansas 22-25, 25-14, 25-22, 26-24 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday.
For the third time in four years, Creighton reached the NCAA tournament. And for the third time in four seasons, the Bluejays advanced to the second round. Creighton will meet Kansas on Saturday with a berth in the Sweet 16 at Los Angeles next week on the line.
“This is huge for us and we’re so excited,” Browning said. “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.”
The Bluejays (23-8) have won eight of 10 matches. Their 23 victories are the second most in program history, behind the 29 by last year’s team.
Browning and fellow first-team All-Big East player Leah McNary paced the offense with 15 and 14 kills, respectively. But it was Creighton’s defense that ultimately decided the match, coming up big in the final three sets.
Browning was involved in 11 block assists, and she assisted on two of the night’s final three points. She was involved in four of Creighton’s last six points as the Bluejays rallied from a 24-22 deficit to win fourth set.
After registering a kill to cut CU’s deficit to 24-23, she assisted McNary on a block to tie it 24-24, then teamed with Michelle Sicner on the match-ending block.
With Arkansas needing one point to send the match into a fifth set, Creighton didn’t panic.
“We just said, ‘let’s finish this in four,’ and we played well,” Browing said. “The block had a lot to do with that, and we had a good defense behind us. We were all on the same page.”
Browning played a key role in the Bluejays’ second-set victory after they squandered the first set. Creighton scored the first four points of the match and led 10-5 before Arkansas called a timeout in the first set.
The stoppage was helpful for the Razorbacks, who scored five of the next seven points and 11 of the next 17 to tie the set 16-16. After five ties, Arkansas took its first lead at 21-20 and closed the set on a 7-3 run.
After Arkansas hit .394 in the first set without Creighton recording a block, the Bluejays stepped up at the net with 171⁄2 blocks the rest of the way. Arkansas hit minus-.048, .139 and .135 in the last three sets, respectively.
“After Game 1, we challenged them to relax, be aggressive and play our game,” Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth said. “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.”
The Bluejays jumped to a 12-1 lead in the second set. Creighton dominated the net, registering 61⁄2 blocks and forcing 11 Arkansas errors in the set.
A 5-0 run put the Razorbacks up 14-10 in the fourth. Arkansas was one point away from forcing a fifth set, leading 24-22, before Creighton scored the final four points.
“They served well and hit some zones which limited our options,” Arkansas coach Robert Pulliza said. “They got 17 blocks, which was exceptional for them. They did a better job of passing the ball than we did.”
Arkansas finished 16-14, losing seven of 10 matches after starting 13-7.
Kansas, Creighton’s second-round opponent, is the tournament’s No. 14 overall seed. The Jayhawks defeated Wichita State 25-23, 25-19, 20-25, 25-22 in the night’s second match. CU defeated Kansas in four sets in Omaha this season.
“KU has such offensive parity,” Booth said. “I just think they’ve got weapons all over the place. They have a lot of seniors, led by Caroline Jarmoc. they also have local kids from Omaha, so that even makes it bigger that our players know a lot of their players.”
Arkansas (16-14) .......... 25 14 22 24
Creighton (23-8) ............ 22 25 25 26
A (kills-aces-blocks): Harbin 9-1-2, Koop 11-0-1, Hays 7-1-0, Dapic 11-0-2, Jusino 1-0-3, Santos 6-1-2, Jones 4-0-1, Vazquez 0-0-0, Mollett 0-1-0, Fortado 2-0-1, Bollinger 0-0-0, Helm 0-1-0, Morgan 0-0-0. Totals 51-5-12.
CU: Jereb 5-0-3, Browning 15-0-11, Sicner 3-0-6, McNary 14-0-3, Bird 9-0-5, Smith 5-0-6, Jansen 1-0-0, Neisler 0-0-0, Elman 0-2-0, Stivers 0-0-0. Totals 52-2-34.
Set assists: A 50 (Santos 42, Vazquez 3, Helm 2, Mollett 1, Hays 1, Koop 1), CU 52 (Sicner 45, Jereb 3, Jansen 2, Bird 1, Elman 1).
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>> Video: See Coach Booth's postgame speech and Creighton's press conference:
>> Video: See highlights from the Bluejays' four-set win over Arkansas: