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Kentucky seniors complete triumphant home finale with 3-0 win over Baylor in NCAA Tournament

Sydney Yonker
Kentucky celebrates a kill during the Kentucky vs. Baylor volleyball game on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 3-0. Photo by Sydney Yonker | Staff

Kentucky volleyball (21-7, 16-1 SEC) defeated the Baylor Bears (17-12, 10-8 Big 12) to advance to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament and extend its winning streak to 18 straight.

Seniors Azhani Tealer, Elise Goetzinger and Regan Rutherford took the court in front of the home fans for the final time prior to the match.

“I’ve been here for five years and I’ve loved every second, there’s not too many that have taken more pride in wearing this jersey than I have,” Tealer said.

The senior trio gave Big Blue Nation a final game to remember.

“I think we just worked really hard and cared about the University of Kentucky and we were really good people,” Tealer said when talking about the legacy the seniors leave.

After an opening kill by Emma Grome, Rutherford checked into the match for the first time and stood to Tealer’s right in the front row.

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 (Isabel McSwain)

Tealer then earned her first kill of the match as she pumped her fist and greeted her teammates in the huddle.

After two Baylor points, Rutherford then earned her first kill of the game as well before adding another for the Cats’ next point.

After each kill, Rutherford screamed in excitement and her teammates seemed just as excited as she was.

Maintaining a 9-7 lead, Rutherford and Tealer earned back-to-back kills to extend the lead.

Baylor went on a four-point run and tied the match 11-11, however Rutherford broke the tie and gave the Wildcats a 12-11 lead. Then, with the set winding down and an 18-16 lead, Tealer earned another kill to extend the lead to 19-16.

Baylor continued to keep it close but Tealer erupted for her dominant first set, keeping the Cats ahead throughout the competition.

Now with a 22-18 lead, Tealer and Rutherford blocked the Bears’ next kill attempt before sharing a chest bump before being joined by their teammates.

In the end it would be Rutherford who closed out the set with a kill to give the Wildcats a 25-18 set win and a 1-0 match lead.

After getting down 3-0 in the second set, Kentucky was forced to rally and a sixth kill from Tealer eventually tied the set.

Rutheford got right back in the mix as well in the second set as another kill capped off a 5-0 run for the Cats.

Keeping the pattern going, Tealer canceled out a point earned by Baylor with another kill and this time she was pushed enthusiastically by Brooklyn DeLeye as they both celebrated with the team.

With Rutherford and Tealer continuing to make an impact themselves throughout the set, the pair would record back-to-back kills to put Kentucky ahead 22-19.

Kentucky Wildcats middle blocker Elise Goetzinger (11), left, celebrates with outside hitter Reagan Rutherford (10) after scoring during the Kentucky vs. Pitt volleyball match on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky lost 3-0. Photo by Samuel Colmar | Staff

As the set came to a close, Rutherford sent a rocket into the Bear defense that it could not handle, earning another kill and bringing Big Blue Nation to its feet with set point.

The Bears crept a point closer, but a kill from Goetzinger secured the set by a score of 25-22 and gave Kentucky a 2–0 match lead.

Rutherford wasted no time getting back to it in the third set, earning a solo block that capped off a 3-0 Kentucky run to begin the set.

Rutherford continued her dominance with another kill before recording back-to-back service aces.

She would add another kill later in the set before her and Tealer each recorded their final kills of the match to bring the lead to 22-14.

Back-to-back kills from Goetzinger sent BBN into a frenzy and secured the set by a score of 25-17 and the match 3-0.

“We can never play perfect, but I think that’s as close to perfect as it gets,” Rutheford said.

She finished the match with a team leading 14 kills, followed by DeLeye, who had 13, and Tealer, who had 11, to complete the double-digit kill trio. Goetzinger also had seven kills.

Rutheford and Tealer locked arms with their teammates as they sang “My Old Kentucky Home” with BBN before the trio waved one final goodbye to Rupp Arena and the home faithful before retreating to the locker room with tears streaming down their faces.

“How about this senior group tonight that was certainly prepared to play a great match and executed at the highest level,” head coach Craig Skinner said postgame.

Kentucky will hit the road and head to Lincoln, Nebraska, on Thursday, Dec. 7, to face off against Arkansas in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. The match will take place at 4:30 p.m. ET and will air live on ESPNU.

“I think everywhere we go there’s a target on our back and people are going to draw big crowds, especially in the tournament,” Tealer said. “It’s us against everyone else.”

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Jonathon Bruner, Assistant Sports Editor

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