Watch: Wild rally helps lift Houston volleyball to NCAA tournament win
Houston will next play Auburn.
Kentucky Volleyball won their first-ever National Championship Saturday, bringing to conclusion a season unlike any other. While they say history isn’t made easily, the Wildcats certainly made it look like that at key moments Saturday night, as they beat the Texas Longhorns 3-1 in Omaha.
Here’s how the action unfolded.
No. 2 Kentucky battled in the first set, but No. 4 Texas jumped out to an early lead. At the highest level of the sport, the serve and pass battle is what matters most, and Texas was passing dimes. The combination of Logan Eggleston and Skylar Fields proved lethal for the Longhorns, and when Jhenna Gabriel had the ball in her hands close to the net, Kentucky had to respect the efficiency of each hitter on the floor.
The Wildcats had their opportunities. Kentucky setter Madison Lilley, the AVCA National Player of the Year, often had the ball in her hands, but Kentucky couldn’t find the floor. Texas continued to ride their early momentum to a 14-10 before eventually taking the first set 25-20. Kentucky seemed to be playing with some nerves, as they only hit .216 in the opening set with seven errors — their worst numbers of the season.
This game was always going to be played on the pins. Eggleston (the Big 12 Player of the Year) and Alli Stumler (First Team All American and Kentucky’s kill leader) were going to carry a huge load for their respective teams in this match. And whichever team could hold the other player in check was going to have a good chance of winning the championship.
Kentucky came out swinging fearlessly in set two. The dynamic pin play of Stumler and the Skinner sisters proved to be too much for the Texas defense, as Kentucky found a new level from the service line and forced Texas to play one-option volleyball. This helped Azanhi Tealer, as she got an early read on the block and could disrupt Eggleston and Fields. Kentucky dominated the set from start to finish, with an ace from Stumler sealing it, 25-18.
In set three, I expected both teams to find their go-to pin players. Lilley has said in interviews that she’s not afraid to ride the hot hand of her team as the match goes in waves. That player has been Stumler all year, and she continued to deliver on Saturday.
Tied at 13-13, this set was closer than the previous two until Kentucky made a run. Texas brought it within one at 22-23 but missed a crucial serve to give Kentucky game point. Kentucky won the set on yet another Madi Skinner kill.
Set four, and with a national championship on the line, Texas came out firing. Off to a 6-1 lead, past sets would have indicated a strong start would lead to a set win. Kentucky was facing the largest deficit they had seen all tournament, but the Wildcats clawed their way to a 14-13 lead, their first advantage of the set.
The teams swapped sideout points and Kentucky battled to keep Eggleston in check. A crucial Avery Skinner kill put Kentucky at 21-19, and the Wildcats rolled from there. A service ace gave Kentucky room to breathe, and in the most fitting ending, Ali Stumler’s 26th kill of the match sealed Kentucky’s fate and won the NCAA championship, both the program’s and the SEC’s first.
Congratulations immediately began flowing in from various Kentucky luminaries:
WOW!!!!— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) April 25, 2021
Can’t begin to tell you how how happy I am for this team, the players and the coaching staff. What an accomplishment.
What @UKCoachSkinner has done to build this program: AMAZING. Every season they have gotten better and better, and now: NATIONAL CHAMPIONS!!! https://t.co/F1cdaaoOVe
While students burned couches in the streets of Lexington:
In the end, it only seemed fitting that a year like no other should end with history being made in the championship game.
Houston will next play Auburn.
All 12 players on the Second Team are committed to D1 college programs.
Four of the 12 selections will play college volleyball at Nebraska.
Wisconsin ended the regular season on an 18-match winning streak.
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