In earning the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, there’s little question this is the best Kentucky volleyball team in Coach Craig Skinner’s 13 seasons. Saturday night, his players also proved to him that it’s the toughest.
After dropping the first two sets to Western Kentucky, one of the top offensive teams in the nation, UK rallied to win the final three games and clinch the team’s first Sweet 16 berth since 2012 in front of 3,620 fans at Memorial Coliseum.
“I’ve not seen that type of toughness in that uniform in that environment since I’ve been here. And that’s saying a lot, because we’ve had some tough teams here,” Skinner said. “We have 17 great competitors and some that just absolutely refuse to lose. And I’m not talking about a match, I’m talking about (not even) one point.”
With no margin for error, the Cats shrugged off being largely dominated in the opening two frames. And tied 12-12 in a fifth game race to 15, they managed come up with big plays to earn the victory.
“I like to think that we’re the best Game 5 team in the country,” UK senior Kaz Brown said after the match. “Going into it, I have nothing but confidence in my teammates. When we’re on, we’re really hard to stop. We like to play in big games.”
Kentucky looked to have all the momentum heading into the fifth game after forcing it with a 25-19 win in the third and a 25-21 win in the fourth.
UK opened the fifth with four straight points thanks to a kill by Brown and two from sophomore sensation Leah Edmond. But WKU hung in, getting back-to-back kills from Taylor Dellinger to tie the game 12-12.
From there, Edmond took over, getting back-to-back kills to make it 14-12 and setting up match point. WKU hit the outside pin on the next attack, giving the point and the match to the Cats. Edmond led the Cats with 22 kills, including six apiece in the fourth and fifth sets.
“If you haven’t been a volleyball fan and you were here tonight there’s no way you’re not going to be from here on out,” Skinner said. “That’s as an exciting a sporting event as you are going to see.”
WKU had more kills (69-64), more attack opportunities (168-147), more assists (63-62) and only two fewer digs (58-60) than the Cats and matched them at the net with 11 blocks. In the measure of points accumulated by the players (not counting points off errors), WKU actually outscored UK 84-80.
“Our kids played their guts out,” WKU Coach Travis Hudson said. “They gave me everything that they had and Kentucky played like champions. We gave them our best shot. … All the reasons they hurt so bad right now are all the reasons I’m so proud of them.”
WKU, the Conference USA champion, came in ranked second in the nation in hitting percentage, the volleyball measure of offensive efficiency. At the outset they looked the more comfortable of the two squads, never trailing in a 25-16 first game win and rallying from down 20-17 to win the second game 25-22.
Alyssa Cavanaugh, WKU’s all-American outside hitter had eight of her match-high 23 kills in the first set and six more in the second as Kentucky had trouble getting even a deflection on her and the other Hilltoppers attackers.
“I think we’re a team that responds to defensive plays,” Brown said. “Any time we get a big block or a one-handed save or anything like that – defense is what gets this team going.”
The Cats got that defense going in the third, getting in front of WKU attackers and keeping more points alive. Brown was part of three of UK’s four blocks that won points in the third game as the score swung back and forth with eight lead changes and nine ties.
UK freshman Avery Skinner connected on three consecutive kills that turned the final tie at 16-16 to a 19-16 lead, prompting a WKU timeout.
But from there, Edmond began to heat up. She had three kills in the third set. They came in UK’s 23rd, 24th and 25th and game-winning point to get UK back in it down three games to one.
Brooke Morgan came off the bench with some crucial points in the third and fourth games and at 6-foot-5 gave WKU someone else to think about at the net. Madison Lilley had a game-high 55 assists for the Cats.
Other than UK’s three losses, the Cats faced a 2-0 deficit one other time this season and managed to come away with a win at LSU. A loss then would have meant they couldn’t claim a share of the SEC title.
“The percentages are pretty low that you’re going to come back from 2-0,” Skinner said. “But certainly, once you’ve done it, you feel like you can do it again.”
Edmond, who is almost as low-key after matches as her coach, said she never worried about losing or the pressure to get back into the game.
“Not with this team,” she said. “I’m never worried or concerned about how the outcome is because I know we’ve all got each other. So, that makes me love these matches even more.”
NCAA Tournament round of 16
No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 13 BYU
Where: Memorial Coliseum