The Kentucky volleyball team faced its toughest test of the NCAA tournament, but that didn’t matter they were making and writing history and the story continues when they play in the championship game for the very first time.
It began competing in their first-ever Final Four on Thursday in Omaha the No. 2 seeded Wildcats dropped their first set of the tournament to Washington and were on the cusp of dropping a second when they dug deep and finished off the Huskies 25-18, 23-25, 25-23, 25-17.
Kentucky (23-1) will face off against No. 4 seed Texas at 8 pm on Saturday on ESPN. The Longhorns (27-1) swept top seed Wisconsin in the nightcap.
Wildcats lose a rare set but storm back for the historical win
The Wildcats had lost just a total of seven sets all year including a 3-2 decision to Florida in Gainsville for their only loss on the year.
Washington had played three 5-set thrillers alone in the tournament so they wouldn’t be deterred by the adversity of falling behind.
Kentucky finished with 55 kills and committed 17 errors, but saved its best play in set 4 when they had Washington on the ropes and delivered kill after kill led by Avery Skinner to finish the knockout. In that set, they smashed 16 kills to go with three hit errors for a .520 hit percentage. Something almost unheard of.
It’s like watching a Jaws movie when this team needs just one more set they can smell blood and the team starts circling the prey across the net.
Admittedly I love watching and writing about volleyball and have covered some of the best high school players and national championships but this Kentucky team is a machine that is both fun to watch and brings joy to Big Blue Nation.
They win with talent, toughness, determination, and pure athleticism from every corner of the court. And coach Craig Skinner won’t them quit and that was what they needed when tested by the Huskies.
Earlier in the day Skinner and Madison Lilley received word they were the recipients of the American Volleyball Coaches Association National Coach and National Player of the Year. When Skinner broke the news to the team pandemonium broke out and that was only more incentive to show the rest of the volleyball world they were deserving.
Lilley and her teammates mirror their coach with their calm and cool demeanor and just go about their business. Kentucky was shaken a bit early on by Washington but should not have been surprised. There was no fear or concern when they dropped Set 2 because as Lilley said afterward they just had to play Kentucky volleyball.
And that she did as the senior who has nearly every award imaginable dug up 14 balls and handed out 63 assists.
Maybe an NCAA most valuable player award would make it complete.
While their stars had moments where the big hits couldn’t find their mark from Alli Stumler and Avery Skinner midway through the match other Cats stepped it up.
While middle hitter Goetzinger was the focal point of three coaches’ challenges from Washington Coach Keegan Cook, the freshman still provided five kills.
Or it was Azhani Tealer delivering 13 kills and a pair of aces. Don’t tell her she isn’t big enough at just 5-foot-10.
Stumler shook off a rough third set because the Cats needed her big wind-ups from the outside and she came through with a double-double of 13 kills and 13 digs.
And then there are the Skinner sisters who are proving how much fun siblings can have on the court together. Senior Avery had 19 kills while the younger Madi, a freshman, chipped in with 13. They will be the talk of Katy, Texas if they bring home a title.
Total team effort gets the job done
In the opening set, Kentucky raced to an early 9-6 advantage behind the Skinner sisters and extended it to 13-8 before Washington reeled off five consecutive points. The Skinner sisters vaulted the lead back out to four and Kentucky cruised the rest of the way.
The following set was a battle much like the first with the team’s matched up tightly midway before the Cats roared out to a 22-18 lead. Three little points would have clearly doomed the Huskies but UK couldn’t hold on and let it slip away.
That gave Washington life and this time it was the Huskies surging ahead late for a 22-16 advantage as they slid and used their “hammer hands” as Cook calls it blocking and delivering blows between Wildcat defenders.
But Avery Skinner’s four kills and Tealer’s pair rallied the Cats who won the set and stunned Washington in much the same manner and from there it was all Kentucky.
That is how this team is built and now there is just one final obstacle standing in their way of achieving something no other Kentucky or SEC school except Florida has ever achieved. A National Title.
Wildcat fans have nothing else to do on Saturday night and if you are in Lexington there will be a watch party at Memorial Coliseum to cheer the ladies on with doors opening at 7:30 and is free.
If you can’t be there then be loud anywhere because as the sports world knows Big Blue Nation is everywhere and our eyes are squarely focused on Omaha.