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In season of firsts, Kentucky volleyball on the brink of first NCAA championship

John Clay
Lexington Herald-Leader
Kentucky outside hitter Madi Skinner, right, celebrates a block with teammates during Thursday night's national semifinal win over Washington. Skinner is this year's national player of the year by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

OMAHA, Neb. — For a team that had rolled through the NCAA Volleyball Tournament without losing a single set, No. 2-seeded Kentucky found itself in the unusual position of needing a championship-level response Thursday night in the national semifinals.

And respond the Cats did, rallying from a 20-15 deficit to win the third set 25-23, then closing out matters in the fourth set to defeat sixth-seeded Washington 3-1 and earn a spot in Saturday's national championship match against Texas.

"Wow," said UK coach Craig Skinner after his team improved to 23-1. "What a mentally resilient performance I thought out team put on today. Really proud of the effort and the toughness to dig out of a hole in the third set."

The Cats then built a 17-10 lead in the fourth set before adding to their history-making first Final Four appearance with a history-making first trip to the national title match.

Avery Skinner led the way with 19 kills. Madi Skinner, Azhani Tealer and Alli Stumler contributed 13 kills each. AVCA player of the year Madi Skinner was credited with 63 assists over the four sets. And Kentucky finished with a hit percentage of .340 to Washington's .260. Each team had 141 attacks, but UK had 65 kills compared to 50 for the Huskies.

"People I don't think understand who that team was last year and what that team is this year," said Washington coach Keegan Cook, whose Huskies knocked UK out of the last NCAA Tournament in a Sweet 16 match. "Great teams make great plays, and they made plays."

The Cats made plays in a situation they had rarely faced all season. Their lone loss came late in the year at Florida, when UK let an advantage slip away and fell 3-2. 

Washington had won three consecutive five-set matches to reach the Final Four and the Huskies executed their game plan of forcing Lilley to dig serves — she had 14 digs on the night — which negated her strength as a setter.

But late in the third set and through the fourth UK adjusted its own strategy to combat that tactic.

"We have some great setters in Gabby (Curry) and Lauren (Tharp)," Stumler said. "We feel like any player we have can set the ball with confidence."

And Avery Skinner took advantage of that. The senior started strong, hit a lull midway through the match, but finished with a flourish of kills that helped seal the victory.

"I'm going to be honest, I got a little teary-eyed watching that," said sister Madi, a freshman. "Seeing her going off on the court like that was so exciting and made me so proud."

Through all of this long, trying pandemic season, the Cats had talked about not just getting to the Final Four, but bringing home the national championship trophy. Can they keep their cool between now and Saturday night?

"I don't want to keep my cool," Stumler said. "I'm stoked right now."