After a slow start, the No. 13 Kentucky volleyball team defeated the Northern Iowa Panthers in five sets (20-25, 25-18, 25-20, 20-25, 15-9) on Saturday afternoon. Kentucky improves to 4-1 on the year and 1-1 in the Bluejay Invitational.
The beginning of the first set was a tight affair until a quick run from the Panthers gave them a 9-6 edge. While UK pulled close at 16-14, the gap UNI established earlier in the set proved too much to overcome. Kentucky eventually fell behind 21-16 before later losing the set 25-20.
Kentucky won the second set handily, thanks in large part to their defensive pressure that prevented UNI from gaining any sort of momentum. UK pushed their lead out to 14-10, which prompted a quick timeout from the Panthers head coach. The Cats’ luck proved incredibly evident in this set, as freshman libero Gabby Curry actually acquired a kill off some miscommunication from UNI. The Panthers tried to stop the bleeding with a timeout when the score ballooned to 23-18, but UK took care of business and closed out the set 25-18.
UNI began the third set in front and grabbed a quick 2-0 lead. However, Kentucky responded and the teams traded points until they were all knotted up at 14 apiece. UK then surged ahead with a 6-1 run and took a 20-15 lead until UNI could stop the run. The teams traded points until Avery Skinner hammered home a kill to end the set and give the Cats the 25-20 set three victory.
Like the three previous sets, neither Kentucky nor UNI could establish a big lead early in the set. The Panthers grabbed a small lead at 14-12, which prompted a timeout from UK head coach Craig Skinner. UNI’s momentum couldn’t be stopped, though, and the Panthers continued building upon their lead until they found themselves ahead 20-16. UK cut the lead to two at 22-20, but would not score again in the set and UNI went on to win the fourth 25-20.
Kentucky established itself early in the fifth set and took a dominating lead at 7-2. While UNI pulled within two at 9-7, the Cats scored two more to put themselves up comfortably at 11-7. After a stuff from Emily Franklin, Brooke Morgan and Avery Skinner, UK pushed their lead to five and went on to win the set 15-9 and the match 3-2.
Freshman Madison Lilley had a breakout game for the Cats as she recorded her third double-double of the year. She became just the third player in UK history in the 25-point rally scoring era to record 65 assists or more in a match. Lilley attributed the Cats’ success to the team’s ability to respond after a hard-fought loss from the night before.
“Today was a really good bounce back. We had a mindset of having a clean slate and we fought hard. Huge credit to our back row. (McKenzie) Watson, (Merideth) Jewell and (Gabby) Curry were passing really well and it gave us opportunities to find different hitters. We distributed the ball pretty well and it’s fun when you have big arms,” said Lilley.
Craig Skinner was happy with his team’s defensive effort after the rough first set.
“We just did a really good job of playing better defense after the first set. First set our defense was not real good, but we fought through it and made plays. We had big plays in the fifth set defensively,” said Skinner.
Kentucky held the Panthers to just a .260 hitting percentage for the match, while they recorded a .316 percentage for themselves. Freshman Gabby Curry led the Cats defensively with 25 digs, becoming just the fifth player in UK history to record 25 or more digs in a match in the 25-point rally scoring era. Sophomore Leah Edmond led the Cats in kills with 21, while freshman Avery Skinner recorded a career-high 19 kills on 41 swings. Senior middle blocker Kaz Brown tallied 11 kills on a .360 hitting clip, and junior Brooke Morgan added 12 kills of her own.
The Cats are back in action tonight as they take on the No. 18 USC Trojans to wrap up the Bluejay Invitational. First serve is set for 7 pm.