Scouting report: Texas volleyball


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

After dispatching No. 6 Washington in last night’s Final Four battle, No. 2 Kentucky stands on the precipice of its first national championship.

“We’re living a dream right now,” head coach Craig Skinner said in a press conference earlier on Friday afternoon. “To be able to bring home a national championship to Kentucky would be special… can’t wait to get out there and see what we can do.”

In order to prevent a last-minute nightmare, the Cats will have to defeat the powerful No. 4 Texas Longhorns (27-1), who have been a staple in the NCAA Tournament and Final Four since the very beginning.

Since 1981, Texas has failed to make the typically 64-team volleyball field only twice: 2000 and 2003. Head coach Jerritt Elliott has manned the sidelines for the ‘Horns since 2001, and after five successive years without an Elite Eight showing, has guided his school to 14 of the last 15 (2019 the lone exception).

This year marks Texas’s ninth Final Four appearance since 2008, and fourth national title game battle since 2009. In 2012, the No. 3 Longhorns defeated No. 5 Oregon 3-0 to clinch their third national championship.

Texas was the No. 2 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament – the position Kentucky finds itself in now – but failed to make it out of the Sweet Sixteen, falling 3-2 to unseeded Louisville at home.

The Longhorns clearly took that sour taste to heart, rebounding with a stellar campaign. Like the Cats, they’ve failed to win on only one occasion, a 3-2 loss to in-state Rice on March 23. In the seven matches that have followed, they’ve dropped just three sets. 

Texas’s NCAA Tournament journey began against Horizon League champion Wright State, dismantling the Raiders in straight sets 25-12, 25-16, 25-16 on Apr. 18. A 3-1 margin over No. 13 Penn State came in the Sweet Sixteen, and another 3-1 result against No. 5 Nebraska the next day pushed them back into the Final Four.

Thursday night, the Longhorns faced unbeaten No. 1 Wisconsin. The highly anticipated affair lived up to the billing, but not the expected match length, as Texas claimed victory over the Badgers 3-0 (26-24, 25-19, 25-23).

Four UT players recorded 11 or more kills to help the team hit .301, while five tallied eight or more digs to hold Wisconsin to a .220 hitting percentage.

Outside hitter Logan Eggleston, the Big-12 Player of the Year and a AVCA First-Team All-American, led the charge with 17 terminations against the Badgers. She has 68 kills in the tournament, and will surely add to that amount versus the Cats.

Big-12 First-Team member Skylar Fields plays the Robin to Eggleston’s Batman in terms of offense, smacking 12 kills yesterday and 58 total thus far into the tournament. Kentucky will have to contain the deadly duo if it hopes to reign supreme.

Texas coach Jerritt Elliot said he thinks Kentucky is playing the best volleyball in the country outside of the Longhorns.

“A lot more firepower. They have great arms. They’ve got the setter of the year. They can serve and pass. We have to make sure we’re ready to go because Craig Skinner is one heck of a coach,” Elliot said. 

Like the Cats, the ‘Horns possess a dominant setter. Jhenna Gabriel, a First-Team Big-12 and AVCA Third-Team All-American, was also the Big-12 Setter of the Year. She registered 42 assists and eight digs in the Final Four match, dishing the ball evenly yet unpredictably to give her hitters the best chance at success.

Middle blockers Brionne Butler (First Team Big-12, AVCA First Team All-American) and Asjia O’Neal (First Team Big-12) also play vital roles. O’Neal, the daughter of former NBA player Jermaine O’Neal, had heart surgery for the second time on Jan. 22, 2020, but has recovered and rallied to play in all 28 matches this year, including the season opener on Sept. 24.

SEC Player of the Year Madison Lilley complimented the size and serving ability of the Longhorns, but described one area that she believes is an advantage for the Cats.

“Texas is gonna serve tough, they’re gonna be a big block,” she said. “[But] I don’t think a lot of teams can play with us in transition. That’s a huge strength and we’re going to try to play to that as much as we can.”

She also expressed a ton of confidence in her squad returning to Lexington with the championship trophy in tow.

“I’m excited to leave here with a [W] tomorrow night,” she said.

Washington tried to shut down the Wildcats by forcing Lilley, SEC player of the year, out of position.

“We found ways to get it done and it was really hard at times, I mean, I obviously don’t pass but even just watching the balls dropped right before they get to our passers, it was kind of a wake up call like okay we need to face this adversity,” Lilley said. She thinks the team can buckle down and play Kentucky volleyball instead of reacting to Texas’s style.

Kentucky and Texas square off for the National Championship tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. E.T. on ESPN2.