When it comes to statistics, the No. 2 Kentucky volleyball team’s biggest strength throughout the 2020-21 season has been its offense. Prior to Sunday’s match against Western Kentucky, the Cats led the nation in hitting percentage (.364) and kills per set (15.06). And with WKU boasting the second-best hitting clip in the country heading into the match against the Wildcats, expectations were high for an explosive offensive contest between the in-state rivals.
But while the Cats’ offense was certainly impressive, it was their defensive effort that made the difference against the Hilltoppers, as Kentucky swept 18th-ranked WKU (25-20, 25-16, 25-10) while holding them to just .093 hitting to advance to the Elite Eight for the second time in four years.
As expected, the first set proved to be a battle, with neither team able to take a lead larger than three for most of the frame. That is, until a kill from sophomore Azhani Tealer and pair of terminations from Avery Skinner pushed the Cats’ lead to four at 21-17. From there, it was the underclassmen who took over, as a pair of kills from freshman Madi Skinner and a block by Elise Goetzinger ended the frame and gave Kentucky the 25-20 set one victory.
But the results of the first set would be as close as WKU could get for the remainder of the match, as the Kentucky defense swallowed any offense the Hilltoppers tried to generate from there on out. Prior to Sunday, WKU boasted a perfect 23-0 record and had dropped just six sets all season. They had three players averaging more than two kills per set, all of whom were hitting on a hitting clip of at least .347. Against Kentucky, however, no one for the Hilltoppers managed to reach a double-digit kill total, with middle blocker Lauren Matthews leading the way with just nine terminations.
“The fact that a team that’s second in the country in hitting and we held them to under .100 (hitting) is a pretty amazing night defensively,” UK head coach Craig Skinner said. “Proud to be able to move on.”
As a team, Kentucky held WKU to just .093 hitting, more than two hundred percentage points below their season average. Leading that defensive effort was Goetzinger, who tallied a match-high six blocks. Not far behind her was Madi Skinner, who recorded three of her own, and Avery Skinner and Madison Lilley, who each had a pair.
It was Lilley who led the way on the back line this time, as the senior picked up a match-high nine digs. Gabby Curry added seven, Lauren Tharp had five and junior Alli Stumler added four.
Despite the defense stealing the show, the offense certainly didn’t take a backseat, as the Cats hit an impressive .450 as a team. Lilley dished out a match-high 38 assists and paced the Kentucky offense to 47 team kills, with four players recording seven or more terminations. Stumler led the way with 17, Madi Skinner added 11, Avery Skinner had seven and Azhani Tealer added eight on just nine swings with only one error.
With the win, Kentucky moves on to the Elite Eight and will take on the 7th-seeded Purdue Boilermakers with a spot in the Final Four on the line on Monday night. The Cats have never made a Final Four in the program’s history, with the other Elite Eight appearance coming in 2017 in a four-set loss to eventual National Champion Nebraska. Ahead of the match, coach Skinner expects a tough match against a battle-tested team from the Big 10.
“They’re always good defensively. They always serve and pass well. They always have a couple of terminal arms, which this year is no different. They’re like Western Kentucky: great defense, they play hard. Just a very impressive group.”
First serve will start 45 minutes following the conclusion of the Regional Final taking place at 6:30 ET and will be broadcast on ESPNU.