After quickly taking care of business against UNLV in straight sets Thursday night to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, the only thing No. 2 Kentucky had left to do that evening was await the results of the match between Western Kentucky and 15th-seeded Washington State. And despite being the team considered, at least according to seeding, to be an underdog, it was the Hilltoppers who came out on top, dispatching Washington St. in five sets and setting up an in-state clash with the Wildcats on Sunday evening.
In order to keep the Cats’ historic season alive, it’s going to take a team effort to knock off a WKU squad that finished the regular season at No. 18 in the AVCA Coaches Poll and advance to the Elite Eight for the second time in the last four years. So ahead of the match, let’s take a look at how the two teams compare.
Heading into Sunday’s match, the Kentucky Wildcats lead the nation in hitting percentage, terminating the ball at an impressive .364 hitting clip and ranking first in the country with 15.06 kills per set.
Pacing the Cats is SEC Player of the Year Madison Lilley, who has poured on a masterful season at setter for Kentucky after being given the starting role as a freshman four years ago on a team that made the Elite Eight. Lilley is averaging a whopping 12.10 assists per set, good for second-best in the country. She’s eclipsed 50 assists in a match three times this season, most notably of which was a 59-assist performance in a five-set loss at No. 7 Florida.
But despite all of those numbers, the undefeated Hilltoppers won’t be phased in the slightest, as they rank second in the country, just behind Kentucky, in hitting percentage at .353. They’re led by setter Nadia Dieudonne, a senior hailing from Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, Ky. The former Xavier Musketeer transferred to WKU after her sophomore season and is averaging a career-best 11.87 assists per set this year, good for third best, just behind Lilley, in the country. As a junior, she was named the Conference USA Setter of the Year and was named to the All-Conference First Team this season.
But what’s a setter without a hitter?
The Wildcats are led by the one-two punch of outside hitters Alli Stumler and Avery Skinner. A former SEC Freshman of the Year winner, Stumler has had a career year in her junior season, averaging a team-best 4.23 kills per set on .333 hitting, both of which are career marks. Opposite her is Avery Skinner, a senior who was a significant piece to the Cats’ tournament run four years ago as a freshman, but rarely saw the court during her sophomore and junior seasons. But this season the Katy, Texas native is back and better than ever, averaging 3.83 kills per set and hitting at a .367 clip, both career highs.
For WKU, it’s an outside hitter and a potent middle attack that lead the way, headlined by junior middle blocker Lauren Matthews. Matthews is averaging 4.00 kills per set on a blistering .445 hitting clip and has reached double figures in 18 of 23 matches this season. In Thursday’s match against Washington State, she led all players with 20 terminations on 42 swings with only five errors. On the left pin, Paige Briggs leads the Hilltoppers with 3.75 kills per set on a .351 hitting clip. A sophomore from Ortonville, Michigan, Briggs has eclipsed double figures in five-straight and 13 of the last 15 matches, headlined by a 21-kill outburst in a win over Marshall.
UK Head Coach Craig Skinner said while Matthews and Briggs pose as the biggest threats offensively, the other Hilltoppers can be dangerous also.
“The two players who get the most points are Briggs and Matthews, and that’s no secret to anybody,” Skinner said. So obviously we’ll have to do a good job of defending them, but they do a really good job of balancing the net.
But despite both teams being known mostly for their offensive firepower, each squad pays particular attention to the defensive side of the net as well.
The Hilltoppers rank tenth in the country in opponent hitting percentage, limiting opposing teams to just .126 hitting. In fact, only six opponents have managed to hit better than .200 against WKU all season, the highest of which was a .300 attacking clip by No. 24 Rice in the C-USA Championship match. In Thursday’s contest against 17th-ranked Washington State, the Cougars managed just .245 hitting and were forced into 24 errors as a team in large part because WKU registered 11.0 team blocks.
Not to be outdone in their own right, Kentucky isn’t too far behind the Hilltoppers when it comes to opponent hitting percentage rankings, as the Wildcats are the 26th-best team in the category. Opponents are averaging a hitting clip of just .147 against the Kentucky defense, spearheaded by sophomore middle blocker Azhani Tealer’s play out of the middle. Of all of the athletes across the country, 5’10” Tealer is one of two players under 6’0” to be ranked in the top 50 in blocks per set (34th). And covering the back line is senior Gabby Curry. A libero from Buford, Georgia, Curry is a three-time SEC Libero of the Year winner dating back to her sophomore season. She’s recorded double-digit scoops in 10 of the last 11 matches including a season-high 23 in a five-set match against Florida.
Boasting a combined 43-1 record on the season, it stands to reason that each team has had its fair share of set and match dominance in their respective conferences.
Dating back to a match against No. 9 Missouri on October 29, Kentucky won an impressive 38-straight sets until dropping a close one against Ole Miss on March 13. Of their 21 matches played this season, 16 have been sweeps. And in a total of 69 sets played, the Cats have dropped only seven of them, with each set loss coming by an average of just 3.85 points.
But the Hilltoppers have had some set streaks of their own, the largest of which was a 25-straight set winning streak that spanned across a month of play. Throughout the entirety of their season, they’ve dropped just six sets and have yet to lose a match. Thursday night’s victory marked their first five-set contest of the season, a 15-10 win which sent WKU into the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history.
All this to say, Sunday’s match is certainly set up to be a good one. A pair of experienced setters are flanked by a slew of offensive talent, with Kentucky’s offense being more pin-heavy and WKU’s being run heavily out of the middle. In order for the Cats to come out on top, they’ll have to find a way to keep WKU out of system to limit Dieudonne’s ability to set Matthews and force Briggs to take the brunt of the swings. Kentucky has struggled at times to keep offensive-minded middle blockers at bay, so they’ll need to key in on Matthews to ensure she doesn’t have a big night offensively. And as great as Alli Stumler and Avery Skinner have been on the left side all season long, role players like Madi Skinner, Azhani Tealer and even Elise Goetzinger will need to come up big to keep WKU’s block honest. And considering the fact that the last time these two teams met in the NCAA Tournament it went five sets back in 2017, don’t be surprised if the Hilltoppers give the Cats all they can handle as Craig Skinner and company try to make another run at an Elite Eight.
Sunday night’s game will be broadcast on ESPN2 as the final match of the day’s Sweet Sixteen contests. First serve is set for 10:00 pm ET.