Azhani Tealer paves Kentucky volleyball’s path to the Sweet 16


Isabel McSwain

Kentucky Wildcats middle blocker Azhani Tealer (15) prepares for an incoming ball during the No. 3 Kentucky vs. WKU volleyball match in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 3-0. Photo by Isabel McSwain | Staff

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

No. 3 Kentucky volleyball swept No. 6 Western Kentucky on Friday, earning a trip to the Sweet 16 for the first time since hoisting the National Championship in the 2020-2021 season.

The win was thanks in big part to senior middle blocker Azhani Tealer, who led the way with 13 kills, leading all athletes in the match.

Kentucky also won the battle on defense with 42 digs, 13 of which came from libero Eleanor Beavin, ensuring that the strong attack could do what it does best.

“I was just trying to be really scrappy and pick everything up,” Beavin said. “They run a different kind of offense than we usually see so there were a lot of crazy balls that we’re not used to. Luckily the ball just got knocked around to me (I could make some) big plays, but defense is definitely a big factor. If we can slow down their best hitters, we can definitely be successful.”

Both teams entered the match coming off a sweep, with Kentucky out matching Loyola Chicago and the Hilltoppers conquering Bowling Green just one day prior.

Unfortunately for Western Kentucky, its win came back to bite it with starting libero Abby Schaefer unable to play against Kentucky, suffering the effects of a back injury that was only worsened by taking the court against the Falcons.

Despite that, Western Kentucky came out strong against the Wildcats, battling close and even leading 5-4 before Tealer recorded a statement kill that turned into a 5-0 scoring run.

The Hilltoppers refused to back down, but much like against Loyola Chicago, Kentucky continuously pulled further and further away with numerous short scoring runs of three and two.

In the end it was Tealer who recorded the final kill of the first set, slamming the ball to the ground and giving the Wildcats a 25-17 win to start the match.

The second set was the worst of the night for the Hilltoppers, with the Wildcats recording two scoring runs of four or more.

Ultimately, despite Western attempting to get back into the set with a 2-0 run, a service error conceded the set and gave the Cats a 25-16 victory.

Things seemed to change in set three when Western Kentucky jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead and even led by as many as six points at multiple points in the set.

Momentum then quickly shifted back in favor of the home team as, with Reagan Rutherford serving, Kentucky went on a 3-0 scoring run to get back within three before the junior recorded a service error of her own.

Unfortunately for Western Kentucky, the damage was already done momentum wise, and the Cats bounced back with a 6-0 run to take the lead.

“We’ve been down a lot this season, so I think we were pretty comfortable in the situation,” Beavin said. “We’re confident in our abilities to do that (battle back). Everyone was super calm, it didn’t really feel like we were down that much and luckily, we were able to come back pretty quickly. It’s a goal for us to go into the 20s being ahead.”

The Hilltoppers refused to go away but Kentucky ensured that they were unable to put together any more runs in the set before sophomore Erin Lamb put the final nail in the coffin, giving the Cats a 25-21 set victory.

As a team the Wildcats outkilled Western 44-36, but the real difference maker seemed to be Kentucky’s 10 service aces.

With the win Kentucky avenged last season’s shocking 3-1 upset loss to Illinois in the second round and advanced to face the winner of No. 2 San Diego and No. 7 Washington State.

“It’s not hard to find motivation for a match like that (against WKU),” Tealer said. “I’ll address it now; we had an early exit last year, so we were excited to get back in front of the BBN. We were really excited to play and it’s really easy (to perform well) when the crowd is like that and really into it.”

Regardless of that result, Kentucky is all but guaranteed to travel to California as either the Toreros or No. 1 Stanford are expected to host the regional bracket.

The time and date for the Sweet 16 matchup is TBD, with the Cougars and USD taking the court tonight at 10:30 p.m. EST, with a date with UK on the line.