For the past four years, Kentucky volleyball has been all about making history. From winning SEC Titles for the first time in decades, to receiving the program’s highest-ever seed in an NCAA Tournament this year, the Wildcats have prided themselves on changing the culture of volleyball in the Bluegrass.
And with a Final Four berth on the line against Purdue Tuesday night, the Cats wrote their names into the history books yet again, sweeping the Boilermakers (25-23, 25-20, 25-16) to advance to the first Final Four in school history.
“Getting this done in the first ever Final Four for Kentucky is an amazing accomplishment for our program,” UK head coach Craig Skinner said. “So many players came before that are here supporting us, watching on tv supporting us. That was for all of the former players and Kentucky Wildcats out there that have been behind us for years.”
Heading into the match, Purdue ranked fourth in the country in blocks per set, averaging an impressive 2.98 rejections a frame. And to start the match, that block seemed to bother the Wildcats, as a pair of Purdue blocks and some uncharacteristic errors put Kentucky in an early 12-17 hole as the Boilermakers closed in on a set victory. But staring up at that five-point deficit, that’s when the Cats made their run.
“Our team was unrelenting,” coach Skinner said. “You got down in a hole in the first set and I don’t think you could tell what the score was on their face. They just continued to battle.”
Despite being forced into nine hitting errors in the first frame alone, the Cats utilized a 9-1 run to take a 21-18 lead and steal back the momentum. From there, the teams seesawed until a kill by Avery Skinner ended things and gave the Cats the set one victory.
The second set was much tighter than the first, with both teams being knotted up at 19-19 late in the frame. But just as they had done in the first, Kentucky took control, rattling off a 6-1 spurt to take the set 25-20 and go up 2-0 in the match.
And after two heartbreaking losses in sets one and two, the Boilermakers simply didn’t have enough left in the tank as the Cats coasted to the 25-16 set three victory.
Offensively, Kentucky was paced by junior outside hitter Alli Stumler, who poured on a match-high 16 kills on 40 swings and a .300 hitting clip. She also added ten digs to the winning effort, good for her seventh double-double of the season. And it was her steadying presence and the calm demeanor of senior Madison Lilley that led the Cats to the victory.
“Madison (Lilley) broke one of our huddles down, saying that we’ve earned this,” Stumler said. “And it’s not just by luck or by chance. We’re here in the Elite Eight, moving on to the Final Four. Every day we come in and we grind it out.”
Following closely behind Stumler was Avery Skinner, who added 12 terminations with just two errors. Her sister, Madi Skinner, added nine kills of her own, Azhani Tealer had six and Elise Goetzinger added four.
As a team, Kentucky hit .256 and tallied 50 kills, while holding the Boilermakers to just .130 hitting and only 30 team kills. As was the case in the match against WKU, Goetzinger’s physical play at the net was a big part of that, as the freshman recorded a match-high four rejections. Madi Skinner added three of her own, and Tealer and Avery Skinner each added a pair.
Gabby Curry was sensational defensively for the Cats once again, recording a match-high 16 digs and a pair of service aces. The libero also added a season-high seven assists. Lilley added 10 digs of her own to go along with 38 assists, notching her fifth double-double of the season.
With the win, Kentucky improves to 22-1 and is the only team left in the tournament to have not dropped a set in the Big Dance. Waiting for them in the National Semifinal is Washington, the team that knocked the Cats out of tournament last season in a 3-1 contest in the Sweet Sixteen. And while Lilley certainly remembers the final result from last year’s match against the Huskies, she’s simply enjoying the moment and the fact that her team is still playing.
“It’s so fun, it’s so exciting,” Lilley said. “It’s addicting. Winning is addicting and I am so excited to play on Thursday. It’s going to be a fun match.”
First serve is set for Thursday at 7:00 pm and will be broadcast on ESPN with the winner set to take on the winner of Texas/Wisconsin in the National Championship Saturday.