Kentucky beats Texas to win first NCAA volleyball championship in program history

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Dominique Yates, Louisville Courier Journal
·5 min read
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As Kentucky's All-American outside hitter Alli Stumler was getting prepped for Saturday's national championship against perennial power Texas, she said she walked down the hallway of the team hotel and passed head coach and AVCA Coach of the Year Craig Skinner and asked a question.

"Craig, you ready to win a natty?" Stumler said.

He responded with, "Oh, yeah."

For the first set, the Longhorns said, "Oh, no," but the next three went to the Wildcats. No. 2 Kentucky downed No. 4 Texas in four sets (20-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-22) to win UK's first national title in program history. The Wildcats also became the first SEC team in history to win the title.

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"A hundred percent validates what we've talked about for years," Skinner said. "You have a long-term vision of building a program and competing for a national championship, obviously, you've got to get certain stages before you have that chance. All along we're not going to compromise the way we did it and did it the right way."

This team played inspired for more reasons than one. To bring that trophy to Lexington, not only for the volleyball community, but for a hurting athletic program.

UK honored late basketball player Terrence Clarke before Saturday's match. Clarke died in a car accident Thursday in Los Angeles. The team said they were "playing for #5."

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The match was a battle from start to finish with the first set, setting the tone of the match.

Both teams traded points the entire set but a kill from Skylar Fields gave the Longhorns some breathing room and a 14-10 lead, forcing a timeout by Skinner. The Wildcats would try and answer but could never fully recover from the deficit as UT hit .455 compared to UK’s .216, enough for the 25-20 win in the opening frame.

As good as Texas looked, Kentucky didn't panic. In fact, they reminded themselves in the team huddles they were going to win.

"We knew it was going to be a battle and grind," Stumler said.

UK came out the second set much better, jumping out to a 15-10 lead thanks to a 4-0 scoring run and big blocks from Azhani Tealer. From there, it was all Wildcats as they closed out the set with a service ace from Stumler to win set two 25-18 and tie the match at 1.

The third set was knotted at 13 before UK found some wiggle room after kills from the sister duo of Avery and Madi Skinner to take a 15-13 lead. The set would be far from easy. With a 23-20 lead, the Longhorns scored two more points to force another timeout from Skinner. The Wildcats held on and Madi Skinner’s kill gave the Cats the 25-23 win in the set and put the team in blue and white ahead in the match 2-1.

A team that’s played in seven national titles, everyone knew Texas had no plans of folding while trailing 2-1 in the match. A 6-1 start to the set put the Longhorns in control. UK showed some light after back-to-back attack errors from Texas that gave the Wildcats a 14-13 lead.

From there, the night belonged to Kentucky.

With the set knotted at 21, the Wildcats closed the game on a 4-1 scoring run and a kill by Stumler sealed the deal. Kentucky won the set 25-22 and the match 3-1.

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“They played phenomenal tonight,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We just couldn’t get them out of system. We couldn’t get on any point scoring runs and they were just so efficient.

“Their better was better than ours tonight, but I thought our team fought.”

UK put together an incredibly dominate tournament. In five tournament games played, the Wildcats lost just two sets the entire postseason.

That wasn't overly surprising to the head coach.

"I knew we were going to be good. Did I think we were going to be this good? I thought we had a chance," Skinner said. "We're good on offense. We were going to be good on defense. We had good setting and a great libero. The skill that this team has is super underrated.

"I just don't know what our weakness is. I don't think we have a weakness. It's hard for me to spout that off before the season is over, but if someone wants to tell me a weakness I'd love to hear it. I knew we had a chance. Did I think we'd only lose two sets in the NCAA Tournament? No, I didn't predict that."

Stumler led the way with 26 kills. Madi Skinner had 19 and Avery Skinner had 14. AVCA Player of the Year Madison Lilley was huge for the team with 53 assists and a game-high 19 digs and was named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA volleyball championships.

Stumler and Avery Skinner were also named to the all-tournament team.

UK ends the year 24-1, a fourth straight SEC title, a national crown, and maybe introduced a whole new fanbase to volleyball in this state.

"We've been on the bandwagon, happy to see other people join in," Lilley said. "Volleyball school, we're excited to see that."

Reach Dominique Yates. Twitter: @RealDYates. Email: dyates@courierjournal.com

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky wins NCAA women's volleyball championship, tops Texas