Kentucky volleyball wins first national championship over Texas

Kentucky volleyball players celebrate after winning a point in the NCAA Championship game against no. 4 Texas on April 24, 2021 in CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

Swing high. Impose your will. Trust the team.

These are some of the phrases head coach Craig Skinner told the Kentucky volleyball team throughout the NCAA Tournament, where UK was the no. 2 seed. Kentucky volleyball made history Saturday night, claiming their first national title against no. 4 Texas.

UK beat the Longhorns in four sets, dropping the first 25-20 and never looking back. Though the third set was back and forth and Kentucky trailed for much of the fourth, UK won three in a row 25-18, 25-23 and 25-22 to take home the title.

“We talked before the match, we don’t know how it’s gonna start, but I know one thing – you’re gonna fight to the bitter end,” head coach Craig Skinner said in a post-game press conference.

The end, of course, was not bitter, and Skinner said it validated what the program has been talking about for years.

“The skill that this team has is super underrated…one of the advantages we will have, we had a lot of skill. A lot of people that can play the whole game… I don’t think we have a weakness, and you know it’s hard for me to spout that off before the season’s over, but if someone wants to tell me a weakness I’d love to hear it,” Skinner said.

Kentucky was anchored by senior Madison Lilley and freshman Madi Skinner in crucial points, but Texas cost themselves opportunities with unforced errors like a net serve at the close of the third set that kept them from tying up the score. Lilley had one of the most pivotal plays in the match – a solo block in the third set.

“Talk about momentum changing plays – and she’s an elite competitor and she’s worked on blocking a ton, over the last couple years with Anders honors who coordinates our defense, and it’s paid off,” Skinner said. “…she saw it on her set and she dove in and made a perfect move and it was a special play.”

Lilley recorded 53 assists, 19 digs and three blocks in the title game. Her hustle and effort were contagious, and hustle and effort is what Kentucky to the title. As they neared the end of the match, UK cut down on unforced errors and made the extra lunge or dive to keep plays alive.

“Obviously we have to score points, but we had to frustrate Texas when we kept balls off the floor like we did,” Skinner said. “…offense wins, defense keeps you in it and it gives you a chance at the end.”

Madi Skinner had only four errors in the match and recorded a career high 19 kills, contributions that are difficult to make on the national stage in what was not only Skinner’s first playoffs appearance, but first collegiate season.

“Incredible job,” Craig Skinner said. “She had more hands in her face than she’s had all year and produced. She hit shots that she hasn’t hit before in matches and wanted the ball and was confident and aggressive.”

Kentucky held Texas to a .333 hitting percentage, while Alli Stumler surpassed her previous season high in kills with 26, including the kill that won the game point.

Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott congratulated head coach Craig Skinner and the Kentucky team in his post-game press conference.

“They played phenomenal tonight. And we just could not get them out of system. We could not get any kind of points point runs, and they were just so efficient, no matter how hard we were serving,” Elliott said. He pointed to his team’s passing as an area they struggled in keeping up with Kentucky, despite 21 kills and 22 points from Logan Eggleston.

Multiple net violations cost Texas the lead in the middle of the second set, enabling Kentucky to capitalize off an ace serve from Stumler to switch the momentum of the match in UK’s favor.

Stumler closed out the second set with three kills in five points. From the second set on, Kentucky was tried but never tested as they kept their cool despite ties in later sets.

Gabby Curry broke a 7-7 tie in the third set with a one-armed dive, then broke a tense tie at 13-13 in the fourth with a pancake to keep the ball alive – which paid off as Texas made another unforced error, hitting the ball long to put UK up 14-13.

Part of Kentucky’s poise came from their deep bench. Rather than rely on Stumler and the Skinner sisters for kills, several UK players came up big in critical moments.

“When everyone is just their best self and giving to the team, that’s when great things happen and legacies are left behind and history’s made, and that’s definitely what this team has done,” Stumler said.

Riah Walker came up big for Kentucky with a service run in the second to give UK an early lead, 9 – 5. An ace from Walker put UK up 23 – 21 in the fourth and caused Texas to burn its last time-out, setting Kentucky up for the win.

Mishits throughout the match kept Texas from overtaking Kentucky, including a missed serve just after Walker’s ace. Eggleston made an almost single-handed run at the end of the third, only stopped by a big kill from Madi Skinner.

When momentum started to slip away from Kentucky, they held on with big blocks that put the Big Blue Nation in attendance on their feet. Avery Skinner led UK in blocks with four. A monster block at 20-19 in the fourth had Kentucky’s bench doubled over with emotion – victory so close they could taste it.

After a break to wipe the floor at 24 – 22, focus, precision and a high swing from Stumler led Kentucky to what felt like an inevitable win.

Saturday morning, Stumler asked head coach Craig Skinner if he was ready to win a natty. He said “oh yeah.”

That faith was borne out in the final as Kentucky refused to get rattled. When all was said and done, UK was the team making angels in the confetti on the floor.

As the ball hit the floor on the final point the six UK players on the floor turned inwards, dropping to their knees in what – even inside the stadium – looked to be slow motion.

“The big dive in and the celebrations after – time kind of slows down in moments like that, and to feel the momentum shift and to really soak that up and enjoy the celebrations is everything,” Lilley said. Kentucky’s win is all the more meaningful for coming at the end of a grueling two-part season and a year upended by COVID-19.

“The sacrifices and the hours put in the extended season…I think it means 10 times as much. I can’t even put enough stress on that this has been a grind to say the least. And I know now sitting here it has all been worth it and even more, but it was a lot this year and it took a lot of self-discipline,” Lilley said. “To have this end goal in mind was crucial to get through the hard moments and there were hard days, no doubt, and to push through those and ultimately see the end goal in mind was everything for us.”

A national championship was the goal from the start for Lilley and Gabby Curry, who pushed each other from freshman year to get better and better and build the Kentucky program to what it is today.

And the national title is the crown jewel of what was already a historic season for Kentucky, as they claimed their fourth SEC championship in a row and advanced to the Final Four for the first time. Stumler said the team’s word for the year was legacy, which they certainly have left.

“It just doesn’t feel real yet that we just, we’re the number one team in the country right now, you know? We’re the national champions,” Stumler said.

Kentucky’s first national title is also the first won by a team from the SEC. Skinner had previously won a title while on the coaching staff at Nebraska and part of the reason he came to Kentucky was to build a title-winning team.

The road to the ‘ship wound through two weeks in Omaha, where Kentucky knocked out challenger after challenger with consistency and an aggressive drive for more. Kentucky’s first Final Four appearance was also their first Final Four victory as they defeated no. 6 Washington in a four-set thriller that head coach Craig Skinner called a “mentally resilient performance.”

The Huskies rallied in the second set, coming from a five-point deficit to take the second and carrying that momentum into the third. But a fiery 10 -3 drive from Kentucky late in the third kept Washington from taking the lead in sets, and from there Kentucky fought tooth and nail to stay in the game.

“People I don’t think understand who that team was last year and what that team is this year,” said Washington head coach Keegan Cook. “Great teams make plays. They made plays.”

By finishing with 65 kills compared to Washington’s 50, Kentucky’s Final Four performance was a preview of the relentless attack that would lead them to the national title.

Longhorns’ star Logan Eggleston gave Kentucky credit for adapting mid-match after dropping the first set.

“They just kind of took over and really found their groove,” Eggleston said. “In the first I don’t really think that they were playing to their highest ability and we kind of came out on top there, and then I think they realized that they weren’t playing their best and found a way and they just kind of had a perfect game after that.”

Longhorns head coach Jarrett Elliott noted that they got some “free points” from Kentucky in the first, perhaps due to nerves, but then UK refocused and hammered down Texas with efficiency.

“There’s a reason that they’re best offensive team in the country,” Elliott said. Part of UK’s success is their well-rounded approach; not only does each role player play their role fully, but their cooperation enables them to pick up the slack when out of system.

“A team like Kentucky is going to test every aspect of your game,” Cook said.

Her solo block aside, Lilley pointed to Stumler’s hustle in getting loose balls as evidence of the team’s overall dominance. Texas head coach Jarrett Elliott also noted that Kentucky has few weaknesses.

“I had confidence coming in to tonight,” Elliott said. “We knew if Kentucky played a great match they could beat us, and they did that tonight. I can’t hang my head on anything. Kentucky just played that good.”

One area that Kentucky over-performed in was passing. Kentucky had seven more digs and nine more assists than Texas, with Lilley and Curry leading UK in both.

“Everybody was talking about their serving, but their passers stepped up big time. The way that they – their numbers on film, weren’t quite as good as they passed tonight,” Elliott said. He called Lilley – who had 53 assists – the best collegiate setter he’s ever seen.

Three Kentucky players – Madison Lilley, Avery Skinner and Alli Stumler – were named to the all-tournament team. Lilley was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2020 NCAA volleyball championship, in addition to her SEC and AVCA Player of the Year honors.