Volleyball’s road to no. 1


Kentucky Wildcats setter Madison Lilley (3) sets the ball during the University of Kentucky vs. Texas NCAA women’s volleyball championship game on Saturday, April 24, 2021, at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska. UK won 3-1. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Barkley Truax

For the first time in school history, the Kentucky volleyball team won the NCAA National Championship Saturday night after defeating Texas 3-1 (20-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-22).

If one word could describe the 2020-21 season, it would be dominance. Kentucky finished their historic season with a 24-1 record, with their only blemish to then top-10 ranked Florida in five sets — the only team to push the Wildcats to a full game all season.

Craig Skinner’s squad was able to sweep every team they faced from Oct. 29 to March 13, winning 38-straight sets in the process. Kentucky’s regular season prowess carried over to the post season.

Kentucky won their first 10 sets in the NCAA tournament before defeating Washington in four sets in the national semifinal. Take a look back at Kentucky’s road to making history:

Second Round — UNLV:

Kentucky swept UNLV 3-0 (25-16, 25-19, 25-18) behind Avery and Madi Skinner’s combined 22 kills (11 each) and SEC Player of the Year Madison Lilley’s 44 assists.

“Madi Skinner hits at a whole different level and forces the defense to guard the whole net,” head coach Craig Skinner said postgame.

The Rebels (13-1) came into the second round undefeated on the season with a chip on their shoulder. Kentucky hadn’t graced the court in over three weeks between their final regular season game and their first post-season matchup.

Rust from the Wildcats’ extended break was nonexistent as they dominated UNLV from the opening serve. But that’s not to say the Rebels didn’t have a winning mindset early on.

“UNLV only gave up three unforced errors in the first set, so we had to earn 22 of them,” Skinner said.

The Wildcats finished their first tournament game with 50 kills and 13 errors on 79 total attempts, crushing to a victory and their fourth regional semifinal in program history.

Regional Semifinal — Western Kentucky:

This game began at 11:35 p.m. due to delays in the previous match, much to the dismay of the BBN. The team stayed warmed up while they waited in the arena and quickly dispatched WKU, who were previously undefeated Hilltoppers (23-1).

Kentucky swept WKU 3-0 (25-20, 25-16, 25-10) behind Lilley’s 38 assists, nine digs, two digs and two kills. Azhani Tealer notched eight kills in nine attempts as well.

“It really felt like we could do no wrong,” Tealer said after the match. The Wildcats lived up to their No. 2 overall seed as the game progressed, stretching the margin of win in each set

“We’ve been working over a year,” Alli Stumler said post-match. “Whether that was in quarantine, working at home or in the gym where we only had five people maybe because some were quarantined, or we couldn’t get all 15 people in the gym. It’s awesome and rewarding to see everything pay off,” Stumler said.

She finished the match with a game-high 17 kills on the night. Kentucky had less than 20 hours to prepare for their Elite Eight match-up against Purdue, which would be on the same day given that the WKU match ended after midnight on Monday morning. There was only one thing on the team’s mind after the late-night finish.

“Sleep,” Craig Skinner said. “Sleep in . . . Sleep as much as you can.”

Regional Final — No. 7 Purdue:

Less than 24 hours after defeating WKU, the Wildcats took on No. 7 Purdue (16-7). Kentucky secured their place in program history with their 3-0 sweep (25-23, 25-20, 25-16) of the Boilermakers, giving them their first Final Four berth in program history.

Kentucky came back from a five point deficit in the first set, led by Alli Stumler with six kills on an 8-1 run. An ace serve from Gabby Curry tied the set at 21 and Kentucky never looked back.

“If that set goes a different way, the whole complexity of that match can change,” Coach Skinner said after the game.

After the scare in the first, Kentucky regained the confidence they exuded throughout the NCAA tournament, breaking free in the second and putting on one of the most impressive 25-points stretches all season in the third set. They scored the first seven points in the third set to again stretch their win margin as the game continued.

Stumler, who finished with a double-double (16 kills, 10 digs) credited Coach Skinner for willing the team on throughout the trying times that has been the season of COVID-19.

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

Final Four — No. 6 Washington:

Kentucky defeated Washington (20-4) 3-1 (25-18, 23-25, 25-23, 25-17) Thursday night, advancing to their first championship game in program history behind Avery Skinner’s 19 kills.

Prior to the first serve, it was announced that Craig Skinner had been named 2020-21 American Volleyball Coaches’ Association Coach of the Year. Madison Lilley also took home 2020-21 Division One Player of the Year, the first SEC player in history to achieve the honor.

After the Wildcats cruised through the first set, Washington gave Kentucky their first set loss of the NCAA tournament 25-23 after a successful Husky challenge that forced the game 22-21 instead of a 23-20 Kentucky lead.

Despite leading 20-15, Kentucky fell to an 8-2 run that ultimately tied the game at one set a piece. Kentucky found themselves in unfamiliar territory down 12-7 in set three. Not to be deterred, the Wildcats, just as Washington had done in the second, came back down big to win the set 25-23, capping a 9-1 run with a huge Avery Skinner spike.

“We adjusted our serving strategy a little bit and adjusted our defense slightly, but it was the players making plays and executing. Bottom line,” Skinner said about the third set.

Set four was routine of the Wildcats, building an early lead and not letting up, what Skinner calls ‘imposing their will’ to take them to the title match. Huskies head coach Keegan Cook credited UK for their all-around skill.

“Great teams make plays. They made plays,” Cook said in a press conference.

National Championship — No. 4 Texas

The stakes couldn’t have been higher as Kentucky and Texas (27-2) graced the hardwood of the CHI Health Center in Omaha in the national championship match. Kentucky trailed for the entirety of set one, giving up the first set for the first time since October 2020.

Texas looked tougher, more athletic from the start and was riding the wave of momentum they caught by sweeping No. 1 Wisconsin two nights before, while Kentucky made several unforced errors. But Stumler and Avery Skinner’s stellar second set turned the tide on Texas, taking a 9-5 lead early on.

Tealer recorded three-straight blocks, extending the Wildcat margin and after a set point ace from Stumler, the game was tied at one set a piece.

Kentucky won set three 25-23 after a back and forth nail-biter to take a 2-1 lead, with one set to go for victory.

Texas was dominant in the fourth set, starting out 6-1 behind multiple unforced errors by Kentucky, forcing Coach Skinner to call a timeout. The Wildcats took the lead 14-13 and never trailed again as reality began to set in — the first national championship in Kentucky volleyball history and the first SEC program to ever achieve the feat.

Though Texas hung on and never let UK run away with the lead, Kentucky pulled through to win the school and conference’s first national title.

“I could go on for days about this group,” Stumler said, who recorded a game-high 26 kills. “The emotions that everyone is feeling is so well deserved.”

The champions attempted 141 attacks with 61 kills and 14 errors. Lilley had 53 assists and Madi Skinner also had 19 kills; Stumler was responsible for 29 points.

“This is the team to make history, to leave behind an unbelievable legacy. That was our word for the year – was legacy,” Stumler said.