Kentucky volleyball starts quest for repeat national title with home win

The Kentucky volleyball team has the target on its back as the defending national champions, but Coach Craig Skinner’s girls have no plans to relinquish their hold on the title as their quest to repeat for the 2021 NCAA Volleyball Championship has begun.

The Wildcats (25-4) entered the postseason in defense of its title with 63 other teams and the No. 7 seed that earned them the opportunity to host the opening round on their home court at Memorial Coleusiom in Lexington.

Kentucky promptly dispatched their first challenger Southeast Missouri State with a 3-0 win (25-15, 25-14, 25-19). UK has swept its last nine opponents with ease with their only loss coming to South Carolina 3-2 back on November 4.

Other losses have come 3-2 to No. 1 and undefeated Louisville early in the season, to No. 14 seed Creighton and Wisconsin.

Kentucky volleyball starts defense of its national title-winning opening match

In the opening round Friday the Redhawks gave UK a battle but the Wildcats were too much for the visitors especially on their home floor. In the third set, Kentucky had to work to complete the sweep and Skinner had to call a timeout to get his team back on track.

Kentucky only has 3 seniors on the roster, but Skinner knows he has a special group of girls on the floor and is up for the challenge. He talked about the third set timeout after the match.

“I wouldn’t say it was a complete lack of focus. We tried a couple of new things with the back row stuff we were doing and tried a couple of offensive plays we hadn’t run in a while because we want to have options as the tournament goes on. We probably got a little relaxed as it went on. As the tournament goes on, we obviously want to be locked in the whole time. I think we are competitively mature to know that.”

Big Blue’s killer duo of sophomore Madi Skinner and senior outside hitter Alli Stumler led the way with each pounding out double-digit kills.

Skinner, the 6-foot-2 leaper from Katy, Texas, had 13 kills on 21 swings hitting .524 that lead everyone. On the other side the 6-foot-1 Stumler from Floyds Knob, Indiana, complimented her with 11 kills off 25 swings hitting .400.

Stumler was asked what it was like playing at home in her final year as the post-season got underway in front of 2,878 fans.

“Goosebumps. After they first said, ‘Kentucky Wildcats’ and everyone goes crazy, I was just like, ‘Dang.’ BBN showed out tonight. I think they proved themselves last week, with us playing the day after Thanksgiving. We talked about that last week, but the numbers were crazy, so I was excited to see what it would be like tonight and tomorrow.”

Freshman setter Emma Grome out of Loveland, Ohio set the pair with 45 assists in the match. That is a UK record for assists in a postseason match.

Another young freshman Eleanor Bevin from Louisville’s Mercy High recorded 15 digs from her libero spot. Having watched her play for the past four years she will be a valuable asset to this team.

The Redhawk hitters had a rough time trying to get balls past the Kentucky front line as senior Bella Bell tallied seven blocks to pace the Cats.

In the third set Kentucky got up 18-7 before SEMO ran off five unanswered points and Skinner called his girls to the sideline and regrouped. Out of the timeout, Bell got a pair of big-time blocks and UK went on to close out the set and match.

Skinner addressed the need to call the timeout at that point.

“I wouldn’t say it was a complete lack of focus. We tried a couple of new things with the back row stuff we were doing and tried a couple of offensive plays we hadn’t run in a while because we want to have options as the tournament goes on. We probably got a little relaxed as it went on. As the tournament goes on, we obviously want to be locked in the whole time. I think we are competitively mature to know that.”

 

Kentucky is back on the court Saturday in the round of 32 where it plays Illinois at 5 p.m. ET. the Illini (21-11) beat West Virginia 3-1.

Tickets are still available so Big Blue Nation needs to show up. If you can’t make it the match will be streamed live on ESPN+ with Dick Gabriel and Kathy DeBoer calling the action.