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The next step for Kentucky volleyball: Beating a familiar foe to reach NCAA finals

John Clay
·4 min read

In a way, it’s a fitting Final Four matchup.

To reach the national championship match of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament, these Kentucky Wildcats will have to get past the team that knocked UK out of the last NCAA Tournament, back on Dec. 13, 2019.

“We’ve been waiting for these moments since August, or since I guess the last time we played Washington at Baylor last year and lost in four (sets),” said UK volleyball senior Madison Lilley on Monday night. “This is the nitty, gritty. This is why we compete. This is why we love the game. Regardless of who we’re playing, and who’s across the net, we’re going to do everything we can to compete hard every single point.”

Because this is the big time, the national semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament, Kentucky’s first trip to the Final Four in program history. Lo and behold who should be waiting across the net but those same Washington Huskies who as the No. 8 seed defeated No. 9 seed UK 3-1 in a Sweet 16 match of the 2019 NCAA Tournament in Waco, Texas.

This time, Kentucky (22-1) is the No. 2 seed, Washington (20-3) the No. 6 seed for Thursday’s 7 p.m. EDT match at the CHI Health Arena in Omaha, Neb., on ESPN. The winner will face the winner of Thursday’s No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Texas clash in the national championship match on Saturday.

UK made program history by rolling through its first three matches without dropping a single set, culminating in Monday’s 3-0 victory over Purdue in the regional finals.

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“It has been a surreal moment, to be honest with you,” junior Ali Stumler said Tuesday, admitting the entire team’s phones have been blowing up since the win over Purdue. “But our goal is to win a championship, to win it all, and last night was just a steppingstone toward that.”

Meanwhile, Washington climbed mountains to reach Thursday night. All three of the Huskies’ matches were five-setters. Washington beat Dayton, No. 11 seed Louisville and then Pittsburgh on Monday when the Huskies lost the first two sets before pulling off a reverse sweep, winning the fifth set 15-9 and earning sixth-year coach Keegan Cook his first trip to the Final Four as a head coach.

That UK has had a smoother trip doesn’t mean the Cats have been untested. Lengthy preceding matches pushed the start of Kentucky’s straight-set win over Western Kentucky on Sunday night to almost midnight. After another late start time Monday (10:03 p.m. EDT), UK trailed 17-12 before rallying to capture the first set, imposed its will in the second, then steamrolled the Boilermakers in the third.

“Though we haven’t gone beyond three sets, we’ve been tested and challenged,” Coach Craig Skinner said.

“Each game we’ve definitely been stretched,” Stumler said.

Washington is a different sort of challenge. The Huskies are on a nine-match winning streak. They’ve won five straight five-set matches. Under Cook, the Pac-12 school has been to the Elite Eight three of the last five tournaments, including the 2019 edition thanks to that victory over Kentucky, before finally breaking through Monday to reach the Final Four for the fifth time, the first since 2013.

“Keegan and his staff do a great job of getting a new team together every year,” Skinner said Tuesday. “They’ve established themselves as a great program and a great culture. They play great defense and have great arms. I think it’s a great matchup for both teams because both teams don’t necessarily have to rely on offense or defense. They can be successful on both sides.”

The Huskies are led by Ella May Powell, a 6-foot junior from Fayetteville, Ark., who was named Pac-12 Libero of the Year, as well as all-conference members Claire Hoffman, a 6-2 junior, and Samantha Dreschel, a 6-4 junior.

“They’re a gritty and fiery team,” Stumler said. “I’m excited. I think it’ll be awesome.”

Said Lilley, “I know we’re going to be ready.”

NCAA Final Four

Thursday

7 p.m.: No. 2 seed Kentucky vs. No. 6 Washington (ESPN)

10 p.m.: No. 1 seed Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Texas (ESPN)

Saturday

9 p.m.: National championship match (ESPN2)

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Kentucky volleyball enters NCAA Tournament with legitimate shot to bring home title