For a team that had rolled through this tournament without losing a single set, No. 2 seed Kentucky found itself in the unusual position of needing a championship-level response Thursday night in a national semifinal of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament.
And respond the Cats did, rallying from a 20-15 deficit to win the third set 25-23, then closing out matters in the fourth set to defeat No. 6 seed Washington 3-1 and earn a spot in Saturday’s national championship match at the CHI Health Arena in Omaha.
Kentucky will play No. 4 seed Texas on Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT in the championship game on ESPN2. Texas knocked off No. 1 seed Wisconsin 3-0 in Thursday’s second semifinal.
“Wow,” said UK Coach Craig Skinner after his team improved to 23-1. “What a mentally resilient performance I thought out team put on today. Really proud of the effort and the toughness to dig out of a hole in the third set.”
After taking the first set 25-18 over the Huskies, Kentucky led 20-15 in the second before Washington staged a rally to claim the set 25-23. The Huskies’ momentum carried over into the third set, when the Pac-12 champions, behind excellent serves and a smart strategy, took a five-point lead to be just five points away from taking a commanding 2-1 lead.
Instead, Kentucky flipped the switch the other way, ripping off 10 of the next 13 points to claim the set. The Cats then built a 17-10 lead in the fourth set before adding to their history-making first Final Four appearance with a history-making first trip to the national title match.
Avery Skinner led the way with 19 kills. Madi Skinner, Azhani Tealer and Alli Stumler contributed 13 kills each. AVCA Player of the Year Madi Skinner was credited with 63 assists over the four sets. And Kentucky finished with a hit percentage of .340 to Washington’s .260. Each team had 141 attacks, but UK had 65 kills compared to 50 for the Huskies.
“People I don’t think understand who that team was last year and what that team is this year,” said Washington Coach Keegan Cook, whose Huskies knocked UK out of the last NCAA Tournament 3-1 in a Sweet 16 match. “Great teams make great plays, and they made plays.”
The Cats made plays in a situation they had rarely faced all season. Their lone loss came late in the year at Florida, when UK let an advantage slip away and fell 3-2.
“If we weren’t in that weekend at Florida where they stole a couple of sets from us, and earned them — I think you have to know what that feels like,” Skinner said. “(Tonight), we showed some serious toughness to get through that.”
Washington had won three consecutive five-set matches to reach the Final Four and the Huskies executed their game plan of forcing Lilley to dig serves — she had 14 digs on the night — which negated her strength as a setter. But late in the third set and through the fourth UK adjusted its own strategy to combat that tactic.
“We have some great setters in Gabby (Curry) and Lauren (Tharp),” Stumler said. “We feel like any player we have can set the ball with confidence.”
And Avery Skinner took advantage of that. The senior started strong, hit a lull midway through the match, but finished with a flourish of kills that helped seal the victory.
“I’m going to be honest, I got a little teary-eyed watching that,” said sister Madi, a freshman. “Seeing her going off on the court like that was so exciting and made me so proud.”
Through all of this long, trying pandemic season, the Cats had talked about not just getting to the Final Four, but bringing home the national championship trophy.
Can they keep their cool between now and Saturday night?
“I don’t want to keep my cool,” Stumler said. “I’m stoked right now.”
UK to hold watch party at Memorial Coliseum
UK Athletics will host a watch party for fans to view the national championship game on Saturday in Memorial Coliseum. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m., with the match beginning at 8.
Admission is free. Parking is available in campus “E” lots or parking structures. Face coverings, over the nose and mouth, are required for all fans as they enter, exit and move around Memorial Coliseum. Fans are asked to keep a distance of at least 6 feet (three seats) between themselves and other guests who are not in their party. Fans are asked to perform self-screening evaluations and to stay home if they feel sick or might have been exposed to COVID-19.
There will be no concession sales available. Fans are able to bring in outside food and unopened bottles of water. Fans are strongly encouraged not to bring a bag. Exceptions will be made for medically necessary items.