Heading into Thursday night’s match against the sixth-seeded Washington Huskies, the No. 2 Kentucky women’s volleyball team had not dropped a single set in this year’s NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament. But across from them stood the Huskies, the first team in NCAA history to win three-straight five-set matches to reach the Final Four. And despite dropping a closely contested second set, it was the Wildcats who came out on top, downing Washington in four sets (25-18, 23-25, 25-23, 25-17) to advance to the program’s first-ever National Championship game.
“Wow, what a mentally resilient performance I thought our team put on today,” UK head coach Craig Skinner said following the match. “Really proud of the effort, the toughness to be able to dig out of a hole there in the third set after we had let a big lead get away in the second set. For us to withstand that and perform even better as the match went on… just proud of our team.”
Just as they had in the three matches prior, Kentucky came out locked in and ready to go, forcing Washington head coach Keegan Cook into an early timeout after the Cats took a 9-6 lead. And while the Huskies did make things interesting after tying it up at 13-13, a late Kentucky surge pushed the Wildcats to the 25-18 set one victory.
In set two, Kentucky put their foot on the gas once again, grabbing a 20-15 lead late in the set, just five points away from going up 2-0 in the match. But just as they had throughout their first three matches, Washington didn’t fold, using some tough serving to finish the set on a 10-3 run and tie things up at one set apiece. In the second set alone, the Huskies totaled five aces as a team compared to just two from the Wildcats.
In the third set, Washington continued exerting its will from behind the service line, as Kentucky found itself in a late 22-16 hole and in danger of falling behind in a match for the first time in the tournament.
But that’s when the Cats made their run. Thanks to a pair of kills from sophomore Azhani Tealer and five from senior Avery Skinner, Kentucky rattled off a 9-1 run to stun the Huskies and take the set 25-23 to go up 2-1 in the match.
“We talk all the time about just focusing on the next point,” Alli Stumler said of the Cats’ mindset during their third set rally. “We were down, I think 12-17 at one point when I looked and then 22-16 maybe. They always had the lead a little bit in the third set so we were really just focused on, ‘Okay, how can we focus on getting 13? Now how can we focus on 14?’ We went into that fourth set knowing, ‘Okay we have the confidence now.’ We can overcome big leads; we can overcome anything with this group.”
In the final set, much like they had in the match against Purdue in the Elite Eight, Kentucky put their foot on the gas, taking an early 12-7 lead that eventually ballooned to 23-15. And as they have all year long, the Cats went to Stumler in yet another big moment, as the junior hammered down her 13th kill to give the Cats the set victory and send them to the National Championship game.
Offensively, Kentucky was paced by senior setter Madison Lilley. Lilley was named the AVCA National Player of the Year early on Thursday, the first athlete in program and Southeastern Conference history to take home the award. Lilley assisted on a season-best 63 of Kentucky’s 65 team kills and directed the offense to the tune of .340 hitting. She also recorded 14 digs, good for her sixth double-double of the season.
After hitting a bit of a rut midway through the match, Avery Skinner made her presence felt on the final box score, hammering down a match-high 19 kills on a .283 hitting clip. Following closely behind her was a trio of Wildcats, as her sister Madi Skinner, Tealer and Stumler each added 13 terminations to the winning effort.
Defensively, senior Gabby Curry was sensational out of the backrow, anchoring Kentucky’s serve-receive patterns and registering 17 digs. Lilley and Stumler added 14 and 13 respectively, freshman Riah Walker had six and Lauren Tharp and Avery Skinner each added five.
With the win, Kentucky awaits the winner of the Wisconsin/Texas match to see who their opponent will be in the National Championship game Saturday. First serve is set for 8:00 pm and will be broadcast on ESPN2 with Paul Sunderland and Salima Rockwell on the call.