Turns out these Wildcats are night owls.
A late, late start of 11:40 p.m. EDT Sunday did nothing to slow down No. 2 seed Kentucky as the Wildcats rolled over in-state (friendly) rival Western Kentucky 25-20, 25-16 and 25-10 in a regional semifinal match of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament in Omaha, Neb.
Making their second Elite Eight appearance under head coach Craig Skinner, the Wildcats were to face No. 7 seed Purdue in a regional finals on Monday night for a berth in the Final Four next weekend.
Alli Stumler led the way with 17 kills, Madi Skinner recorded nine and Azhani Tealer was 8-for-9 on kills for the winners, now 21-1 on the season. Madison Lilley tallied 28 assists. Kentucky came into the match leading the nation in hit percentage at .364, followed by Western Kentucky at .353. UK finished at .450 on the night/early morning, while WKU was held to .093.
“To hold them under .100 is a pretty amazing night defensively,” said Skinner afterward.
To stay razor sharp in the wake of a much-delayed start time was an impressive feat, as well. The match was originally scheduled to begin at 10 p.m. EDT, but Washington’s five-set win over Louisville pushed the schedule back. Florida’s 3-1 win over Ohio State did not finish until 10:50, with a 45-minute break required before UK-WKU could start.
Anticipating the delay, Skinner said he tried to hold UK back at the hotel as long as he could. But, said Tealer, “We tried to stay focused, listen to music, doing whatever. It was a long, long wait.”
“Obviously after a delay getting on the court, it was nice to perform the way we did,” Skinner said. “This team continues to impress us with how they respond to challenges.”
Western saw its season end at 23-1 after the program’s first trip to the Sweet 16. The Hilltoppers had advanced with a straight-set win over Jackson State on Wednesday and a thrilling five-set victory over No. 15 seed Washington State on Thursday.
Kentucky opened its championship bid with a 3-0 victory over previously unbeaten UNLV on Thursday before Skinner faced off against his good friend Travis Hudson, the Western coach, and the same program Kentucky defeated in an epic five-setter in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament in Memorial Coliseum.
This match was much more lopsided, however. UK trailed briefly in the first set — 5-4 and 11-10 — but never thereafter. The Cats jumped to an 11-6 lead in the second set, then rolled in the third and final set.
“When your senior center serves an ace on the first point of the match,” said Skinner of Lilley, “that sends a pretty strong message to her teammates.”
“Set two and three we put our foot on the pedal and really pushed through,” Stumler said.
Purdue defeated Oregon 3-1 on Sunday to reach the regional finals. The Boilermakers are 16-6 on the year, but as Skinner pointed out, two of the losses came without the team’s best player, Grace Cleveland, a 6-foot-3 junior. As the No. 10 seed, UK beat Purdue 3-0 in a second-round match of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. But Purdue has also twice knocked Skinner’s team out of the tourney — the first time in 2006, then again in 2010.
“They’re all good defensively, all serve and pass well,” said Skinner of the Boilermakers. “They’re like Western Kentucky in that they play great defense and play hard.”
Can Kentucky play much better than it did Sunday/early Monday against Western?
“With this group, I think there’s always another level we can get to,” Stumler said. “That’s so awesome to be part of a group like that.”
And how did the Cats plan to handle the short turnaround before Monday night’s match with the Boilermakers?
“Eat and sleep,” Tealer said. “I’m starving.”
The UK-Purdue match will follow the 6:30 p.m. match at the CHI Health Convention Center. It will be televised by ESPNU.
No. 2 seed Kentucky vs. No. 7 seed Purdue
When: Match starts 45 minutes after Monday’s 6:30 p.m. EDT Elite Eight game between Florida and Wisconsin
Where: CHI Health Convention Center in Omaha, Neb.
Records: UK 21-1, Purdue 16-6
Series: Purdue leads 11-10
Last meeting: Purdue won 3-2 on Sept. 18, 2019, in Memorial Coliseum.
NCAA Elite Eight
Monday’s schedule at Omaha, Neb. (All times EDT):
Noon: Pittsburgh vs. No. 6 Washington (ESPN2)
45 minutes after noon match: No. 4 Texas vs. No. 5 Nebraska (ESPNU)
6:30 p.m.: No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 8 Florida (ESPNU)
45 minutes after 6:30 match: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 7 Purdue