FAYETTEVILLE -- Earlier this week, University of Arkansas volleyball Coach Jason Watson said his team needed to be wary of upset-prone South Carolina and come out firing in its SEC opener.
The 16th-ranked Razorbacks (11-2, 1-0 SEC) used a dominant start to surge past the Gamecocks with a 25-11, 25-15 and 25-18 sweep Friday night at Barnhill Arena.
Arkansas led for the entirety of the opening two sets and trailed briefly in the final set. The team's hot start and focus pleased the Razorbacks' eighth-year coach.
"I thought we were clean," Watson said. "I thought we did what we needed to do, and we did it for a long period of time. That is something coming off the heels of a trip to New York, where I don't know if we were as clean as we needed to be at times. It was nice to get a return on the practice that we had this weekend."
Senior outside hitter Taylor Head had 13 kills and a match-high 18 digs. Her three service aces also led all players.
Watson said he thought Head and junior libero Courtney Jackson, who had 16 digs, were crucial to the Razorbacks' counter attacks. Arkansas had 47 kills and limited South Carolina to 18.
"I thought both [Head] and Court really dug some nice shots," Watson said. "And I think that set us up to be able to counterattack in a much healthier way than perhaps they were able to do. But both of them I think equally were really good defensively."
Outside hitter Jill Gillen had a match-high 15 kills and Hannah Hogue dished out 35 assists. Hogue entered the match sixth in the nation averaging 11.2 assists per set. Head was quick to commend her setter for orchestrating double-digit kills for both she and Gillen.
"Hannah Hogue is playing lights out," Head said. "She is just a different specimen, and I'm so proud of her and how far she's come. I just can't wait to see the evolution of how her career goes. I'm just really proud of her, and she is the heart of the Hog."
Arkansas jumped out to a 13-4 lead in the first set in large part due to aggressiveness at the service line. The Razorbacks served up three aces and hit a lights-out 34.2% in the opening set against a South Carolina team which entered the match eighth in the nation with 2.9 blocks per set.
Though the Gamecocks finished the match with seven blocks, they had zero in the opening set, which Arkansas won 25-11.
"I thought we served particularly well early," Watson said. "You know, I think the stats will show that it's probably pretty balanced aces and errors, but I thought we had a run of errors late. Certainly I thought that serving pressure initially really helped us in set one."
Arkansas won the second set comfortably but received a greater challenge in the final set. South Carolina took a 6-5 lead, its first of the match, and gained its largest lead at 8-6.
From there, Gillen took matters into her own hands. She had six of her kills in the third set, including the match-winning point at 25-18.
"I thought tonight, while she got her kills, she was also patient in situations that weren't probably the best," Watson said of Gillen. "I think that level of patience is what we've seen develop over the course of her career. ... She's playing the game at a really nice level right now."
Arkansas, which entered ranked No. 9 in the NCAA's RPI, will return to action Sunday at 3 p.m. against Texas A&M at Barnhill Arena. The Aggies swept Mississippi State in their conference opener Wednesday.