Razorbacks down TCU in 4 sets, advance to Sweet 16 for 1st time since '98

Arkansas players celebrate, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, following the Razorbacks’ 3-1 win (25-18, 27-25, 23-25, 25-20) win over TCU in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas volleyball Coach Jason Watson has talked much of this season about getting to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

The No. 9 Razorbacks took down the TCU Horned Frogs 3-1 (25-18, 27-25, 23-25, 25-20) on Saturday evening at Barnhill Arena to make that goal a reality.

Arkansas now advances to play SEC foe and eighth-ranked Kentucky in Lincoln, Neb., on Thursday at 3:30 Central. The Wildcats won both meetings with the Razorbacks (27-5) this season. 

It’s the first time the Razorbacks have advanced past the first weekend since 1998.

Taylor Head led the Arkansas attack with a match-high 18 kills, while right-side hitter Maggie Cartwright had 16 kills and Jill Gillen chipped in 13. Arkansas reached 27 wins, equaling its most since 2003.

Arkansas grabbed some momentum with a big finish in the second set. Trailing 23-20, the Razorbacks responded to tie it at 23. But a Horned Frog kill gave them set point at 24-23. Cartwright came up with a kill to tie it again.

TCU turned back an Arkansas set point, but Head and Gillen came up with back-to-back kills to claim the set.

The Razorbacks trailed early in the first two sets, but fought back to win both. Trailing 14-8 in the opener, Arkansas used a 6-0 spurt to tie it, then finished the set with an 8-1 run after a 17-17 tie.

Cartwright said the Razorbacks just tried to play the same way whether they were ahead or behind.

“I don’t know if we’re really looking at the score a lot,” Cartwright said. “We just focused on what we were doing on our side. We just played our game and just continued to do that through the fourth set.”

Arkansas never trailed in the fourth set, but TCU stayed close. The Horned Frogs scored five in a row for a 14-14 tie, but a hitting error followed by a Gillen kill gave the Razorbacks a 16-14 lead. They wouldn’t trail again.

Both Watson and TCU Coach Jason Williams talked on Friday about how the teams play a similar style. Watson said the matchup was an outstanding one.

“Just a remarkable second-round matchup I think,” Watson said. “I thought two teams probably identical in the way they play and approach the game and just really athletic on both sides. You know those set scores represent it. The margins get slimmer and slimmer as you move forward and I thought that second set was just a remarkable performance by us to close that out.”

But he couldn’t have been prouder of his group.

“They’re brave,” Watson said. “They a lot braver than their coach at times. Maggie and Zoi [Evans] made some unbelievably crucial plays in that fourth set. I’m excited for them. It’s a historic moment for our program, historic moment for me. My hair wasn’t quite as grey when I got here, but it’s nice to get a return on an investment.

“If your hair’s gonna go gray, you might as well win some game. So that’s been nice. So there’s a sense of satisfaction for me. To get a program that has had some success historically, but to get it back into the round of 16 is pretty sweet. I might sleep tonight but I doubt it.”

Audrey Nails led TCU (17-15) with 17 kills, while Melanie Parra added 14.