Kentucky sweeps Purdue to make first Final Four in program history


UK celebrates a point during the University of Kentucky vs. University of Alabama volleyball game on Wednesday, March 24, 2021, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 3-0. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Braden Ramsey

The No. 2 Wildcats, fresh off of a victory over in-state brethren Western Kentucky less than 24 hours ago, picked themselves up after a slow start to defeat No. 7 Purdue 3-0 and advance to their first-ever Final Four.

“Just super proud for getting this done,” head coach Craig Skinner, who became UK’s head coach in Dec. 2004, said postgame. “For all the former players and Kentucky Wildcats that have been with us for years.”

Set one saw the Cats get in an unfamiliar trailing position early, and staying in it as Purdue inched closer to the necessary 25 for a set victory. Their 17-12 margin was their largest of the tournament. For a moment, it appeared the pressure of history could be too much to bear.

That moment, though, was extremely short lived. Kentucky ran off nine of ten points to go up 21-18, and four of five after Purdue led 22-21 to go up 1-0. Coach Skinner knows the match could have had the Cats on the other end of things if they didn’t come out of the opening sequence with a lead.

“If that set goes a different way,” he said, “the whole complexity of that match can change.”

Luckily for him, SEC Libero of the Year Gabby Curry came up clutch as can be with the set result in flux. As Kentucky sat just a single point ahead, she laid out for a dig, quickly jumped back to her feet before dropping down for another, then dove once more later in the rally to keep the ball alive.

Azhani Tealer eventually finished off the kill to give UK its first set point and a 24-22 cushion. The Cats would win the set 25-23.

“She’s just in control,” Skinner said. “She’s always composed, and people play well around her because of that.”

“She demands the ball every single time… [is] always controlling traffic and wants to make it perfect,” junior hitter Alli Stumler said. “[She’s] awesome to have as a leader… especially on my side.”

While Curry and her 16 digs may have flown under the radar, Stumler’s contributions were lauded throughout the broadcast. She led Kentucky with 16 kills, and produced her own highlight reel in the second set, emulating Curry with an impressive diving dig before rising up and recording the termination.

The supremely impressive athletic display made it 21-19 Kentucky and forced the Boilermakers to call timeout. The Cats then won the set 25-20.

“You cannot teach those types of plays,” Skinner said. “She was unstoppable for two sets.”

“There’s really nothing she can’t do,” SEC Player of the Year Madison Lilley said. “It’s so much fun to play next to her.”

Lilley, Curry and Stumler have been in Lexington for a combined 11 years, fighting tooth and nail to reach this stage. Skinner has been here 17. Each player is honored to have helped him advance here after toiling away at it for so long.

“It’s so special to play for a coach like that,” Stumler said. “Such an advocate for the sport and growing the game… I’m so pumped we could do this for him.

Skinner demonstrated that advocacy prowess when speaking postgame, calling out ESPN and USA Today among other national outlets for not only a lack of writing coverage of the volleyball tournament, but women’s athletics all together.

“More than 60 front page stories, not a single one on Volleyball or women’s athletics,” he said, clearly frustrated. “Maybe tomorrow.”

It’s to be determined if those publications will have a different front page layout in the coming days, but what’s certain is that Kentucky will finally be able to get an extended rest. Preparing for and playing matches against the No. 18 and No. 7 teams in the country in under 24 hours isn’t easy, no matter how much the Cats may have made it look.

“It’ll be nice to have a couple days to rejuvenate,” Skinner said, sounding relieved for a break. “For sure.”

While they’re undoubtedly excited to push over this hump, that doesn’t mean they’re satisfied. No. 6 Washington, who defeated them in the NCAA Tournament last season, is all that stands between Kentucky and a chance to play for a national championship.

“I’m not sure it gets more motivating than right now,” Lilley said when asked if battling the Huskies gave her some added juice for the match. “This is why we compete… regardless of who’s across the net, we’re gonna compete hard for every single point… winning is addicting.”

Meanwhile, Stumler made sure to let the media know that the Final Four isn’t why the Cats trekked to Omaha.

“We’re here to win it all,” she said. “But are focused on one game at a time… whether it’s at 2:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m., we’re going to try and get it done.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Kentucky wasn’t slotted in the latest window for the Final Four. Thursday’s matchup with the Huskies is set for 7:00 p.m. E.T., with the broadcast on ESPN.