After claiming a gritty 3-1 victory (25-18, 23-25, 25-23, 25-17) over No. 6 Washington on Thursday night to advance to the program’s first National Championship appearance, the only thing the No. 2 Kentucky women’s volleyball team had left to do was sit back, relax and wait to see who their opponent would be for Saturday evening’s title match.
And despite facing off against the No. 1 and previously undefeated Wisconsin Badgers, it was the fourth-seeded Texas Longhorns who came out victorious late Thursday by knocking off Wisconsin in three tightly contested sets (26-24, 25-19, 25-23) to advance to the program’s seventh National Championship appearance.
Ahead of Saturday’s title match, let’s take a look at what’s made the Longhorns so successful this season.
While the Badgers were given the No. 1 ranking once the Spring slate rolled around, Texas and Kentucky have been near the top of the rankings for the entirety of the season. In the Fall, the Longhorns and Wildcats finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the rankings and were the only two teams in the country who completed the fall slate of matches with an unblemished record.
Once the Spring rolled around and conferences like the Pac-12 and Big 10 began playing, Texas (No. 2) and Kentucky (No. 4) had still done more than enough to retain their positions in the Top 5. After a five-set loss to Rice in March, the Longhorns were given the fifth spot in the polls, plummeting from their previous spot at No. 2.
In more ways than one, that loss to Rice (who eventually finished ranked No. 24 in the last poll before the NCAA Tournament) hurt the remainder of the teams in the field, as many believed the Longhorns had done more than enough to deserve a higher seed than No. 4.
But just as they have all season, Texas shrugged it off and took care of business, reaching the Title game despite going through arguably the toughest path of any team in the Tournament. To reach the Finals, Texas defeated Horizon League Champion Wright State, No. 13 Penn State, No. 5 Nebraska, and Big Ten Champion/No. 1 Wisconsin.
Throughout the course of the season, the 27-1 Longhorns have lost just 15 sets and boast a perfect 11-0 record over ranked opponents, a large reason they captured a fourth-straight Big 12 conference title.
Just like Kentucky, Texas prides itself on its offensive attack, ranking third in the country in offensive efficiency thanks to a .334 hitting clip. The 1-2 punch of middle blockers Brionne Butler (11th) and Asjia O’Neal (16th) are both ranked in the Top 20 nationally in hitting percentage, hitting .431 and .421 respectively. On the left side, they’re led by Big 12 Player of the Year Logan Eggleston. A 6’2” junior from Brentwood, Tennessee, Eggleston is averaging an impressive 4.6 kills per set on a .319 attacking percentage. Opposite her is sophomore Skylar Fields, who made the move to outside hitter after playing on the right side a season ago. Fields is averaging a career-best 3.2 kills per set and has eclipsed double figures in 19 matches this season.
Four Longhorns tally at least 2.15 kills per set and Texas as a team averages 14.63 kills per frame, good for fifth-best in the country. Quarterbacking the offense is junior setter Jhenna Gabriel, who was named Big 12 Setter of the Year after another career season. Gabriel is averaging a career-best 11.26 assists per set and ranks 10th nationally in that category.
Unsurprisingly, the Texas block has been a problem for opponents all season long, as the Longhorns average 2.81 blocks per set. They rank second nationally in total blocks with 275.0, in large part because of Butler and O’Neal’s physical play at the net. Butler leads the nation in total blocks, tallying 144.0 on the year and is 10th in the country in blocks per set (1.52). O’Neal comes in at 11th in total blocks, recording 109.0 on the season.
The Longhorns’ presence at the net is formidable, with five players who see regular action coming in at 6’2” or taller. Texas has reached double-digit block totals 15 times this yeaer, with a season high 15.0 coming twice in matches against Baylor and Wright State.
As previously mentioned, it will take a complete team effort to defeat the Longhorns and take home the Title. Texas is big and just as they have in previous matches, Kentucky will need to take advantage of a fast offense to keep the Texas block on its heels. In the match against Washington, the Cats were tested in serve-receive for one of the first times all season with five of the Huskies’ eventual seven aces coming in the second set alone. Part of running a fast and efficient offense is providing Madison Lilley with accurate passes, something that Kentucky has excelled at for the entirety of the season. They’ll need that pattern to continue into Saturday, as too many out-of-system plays to the left side will make the offense predictable and give the Longhorns time to set up a block.
Defensively, Kentucky will need to bring forth its best serving performance of the season to keep the potent Texas offense at bay. Head coach Craig Skinner felt that the Cats’ serve wasn’t nearly as strong as it should’ve been at times against Washington. A performance like that could prove detrimental against this Texas team.
As it usually does, this match will come down to who can win the serve and pass battle. With two incredibly high-powered offenses coming head-to-head, whoever has the best ball control for most of the match will more than likely come out on top. And with a team that’s passed as well as Kentucky has for much of this season, they’ll need to lean into that strength more than ever to capture the first National Championship in school history.