For the past four years, Kentucky volleyball has been all about making history. In 2017, the program captured its first SEC Title in 29 years and made an Elite Eight for the first time in the modern era. In 2018, the Cats captured a second-straight SEC Title behind a perfect 18-0 conference record, the first back-to-back championships since 1987-88. The year of 2019 ended the same way as the two prior to it, with Kentucky taking home a third-straight SEC Title for the first time in program history. And in an unprecedented year dominated by a global pandemic, the Cats came out on top once again, finishing their conference-only schedule a near-perfect 19-1 and taking home a fourth-straight SEC Title.
“It’s pretty darn sweet,” UK head coach Craig Skinner said of winning another title. “That feeling doesn’t get old. Just really proud of these guys. I can’t tell you how many ups and downs we’ve been through. And obviously we’ve been very successful on the court but to get to this point has been a serious challenge. The coolest thing is that this group celebrates each other. They want each other to do well every single day.”
As has been the case for nearly the entire season, the Cats did it in dominating fashion, cruising past Alabama in three sets (25-16, 25-9, 25-14). Much of Kentucky’s success this season has been due to its potent offensive attack, as the Wildcats lead the nation in hitting percentage (.356%) and rank third in both assists (13.68) and kills (15.02) per set. Thursday night’s match was certainly no different, as Kentucky poured on one of its best hitting performances of the season behind a .469 hitting clip and 43 total kills.
In her final match inside Memorial Coliseum, senior setter Madison Lilley was masterful once again, dishing out 29 assists to go along with two kills, four digs, two blocks and a service ace. Because of her efforts, the Cats hit above .400 in all three sets and tallied at least 13 kills in each.
Senior Avery Skinner and sophomore Azhani Tealer did most of the damage offensively, each hammering down 11 terminations. Avery Skinner went without an error all night and finished with a hitting percentage of .478. Tealer continued to be a steady force out of the middle, only recording one error and tallying seven kills in the first set alone. Following closely behind them was junior Alli Stumler, who added 10 kills on 20 swings without an error for a hitting percentage of .500.
Defensively, Gabby Curry came up big once again. The senior recorded a match-high 12 digs to go along with a pair of assists and a rare libero-kill. Stumler added seven digs of her own, Avery Skinner had five, Lauren Tharp had five and Tealer had two.
When asked about what it meant to leave the program in a place where SEC titles now run through Lexington, Curry was confident in her younger teammates’ abilities to keep things going.
“It’s freaking amazing. All I have to say is, ‘It’s about dang time.’ Talking to the coaches, they said at one point in the program they didn’t know if they were ever going to win. But now it’s, ‘We better.’ So, it’s about dang time and these freshmen, and sophomores and juniors are going to keep it going.
Kentucky’s block bothered the Crimson Tide all night long, forcing them into a hitting percentage of just .045. The Cats tallied 9.0 team blocks, headlined by Tealer’s six. Avery Skinner added five of her own and Madi Skinner, Lilley and Bella Bell each had a pair.
With the win, Kentucky improves to 19-1 on the season and earns the SEC’s automatic qualifier in the NCAA Tournament. This year, the tournament will consist of just 48 teams who will be confined to a bubble in Omaha, Nebraska. The first round of games will begin on April 14 with the National Championship being played inside the CHI Health Center in downtown Omaha on April 24.
The senior class finishes its career with a 69-4 conference record and is the only class in program history to have won a conference title all four years. Kentucky will now await its first postseason opponent until the Selection Show on Sunday, April 4. The Selection Show will be aired on ESPN at a time yet to be determined.