The state of Kentucky has always been considered by those near and far a basketball state.
Maybe add volleyball to the list.
When Western Kentucky lines up against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament second round at Memorial Coliseum Saturday, it will represent two of the state’s three conference champions and the hard work put in by the players, staff and coaches not only of those universities, but also of a vibrant youth club and high school system that has begun producing quality college volleyball talent, said WKU Coach Travis Hudson.
“It’s a great time for volleyball in this state,” Hudson said after his team’s 3-0 demolition of Notre Dame in Friday’s first round. “There’s a lot of places that are perceived to be great volleyball areas. I think this is a testament that this part of the country holds an awful lot of good talent and talented coaches.”
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Both WKU (31-3) and Kentucky (27-3) boast four in-state players on their rosters. Hallie Shelton, a freshman out of Henry Clay High School started and contributed 17 digs against Notre Dame, second best on the team.
Kentucky, the SEC co-champion and No. 4 seed in the tournament, features Paul Laurence Dunbar product Leah Edmond, one of the most feared outside hitters in the nation. Edmond had 11 kills, also second best on the team behind freshman Avery Skinner in the Cats’ 3-0 sweep over East Tennessee State in the night’s other matchup in front of a crowd of 4,005.
The UK victory gave Coach Craig Skinner his 300th career win.
“When I got here, the dream was to fill this place up,” said Skinner, who is in his 13th season. “We didn’t do that very often in ’05 and ’06. To see the crowd and the coverage and interest in our sport as it goes along with win No. 300 that makes me happy. To know where we’ve come from and where we can even go to.”
Despite the sweep, Kentucky struggled at times against ETSU, falling behind 10-5 in the third set before a timeout by Skinner got them back on track.
“You can’t overlook an opponent … East Tennessee came storming back and, obviously in the third set put it on us.” Skinner said. “You have to expect that type of fight from every team in the tournament, otherwise they wouldn’t be here.”
WKU entered the NCAA Tournament for the fourth season in a row off its fourth-straight Conference USA championship. The Hilltoppers made quick work of their Atlantic Coast Conference opponent Friday afternoon, reeling off the first seven points of the first set and rarely looking back.
WKU also comes in as the second best team in the nation in hitting percentage, a measure of offensive efficiency. No. 3 on that list? Kentucky.
But the Toppers showed they could defend as well, racking up 67 digs and 10 blocks against a team in Notre Dame that was statistically better than them in those categories.
Kentucky hosted WKU for a preseason scrimmage but Hudson and his players don’t believe they gleaned much about the Cats then other than “it’s really hot in Memorial Coliseum in August.”
“I think they are going to be a really different team, as well as we are,” said senior Alyssa Cavanaugh, who led the Toppers with 18 kills against Notre Dame. “Really, I think it’s just a clear wash, and we’re just going to prepare ourselves.”
Each team has played ACC champion Louisville, the state’s other NCAA Tournament team. WKU lost that early season match 3-1. Kentucky swept the Cardinals 3-0.
On Friday, Hudson defended Kentucky against murmurs that there were perhaps other teams in the nation more deserving of the No. 4 seed. UK earned a No. 3 RPI ranking, but was No. 6 in the final AVCA coaches’ poll.
“I think that’s completely unfair to these kids and this program,” Hudson said. “Yes, there are other teams that could have made their case too, and that’s easy for people to go out there and do. But this Kentucky program is absolutely deserving of being a top seed. … They are a team that can play with anybody in the country.”
Saturday night, they’ll both be playing for a spot in the NCAA Sweet 16.
Western Kentucky vs. Kentucky
What: NCAA Tournament second-round match
Where: Memorial Coliseum
When: 7 p.m.
Live video broadcast: WatchESPN.com or WatchESPN app