For a sixth straight season, Kentucky volleyball remains the gold standard in SEC volleyball.
The Wildcats earned a share of the SEC volleyball championship on Saturday afternoon — the sixth straight season that UK has earned at least a share of the conference title — following a straight-sets win over South Carolina inside Memorial Coliseum in Lexington.
Saturday’s win came after another straight-sets win by Kentucky over the Gamecocks on Friday.
Senior middle blocker Azhani Tealer led the way for UK in Saturday’s championship-clinching win with 16 kills.
Senior outside hitter Adanna Rollins (11 kills and six blocks) and junior opposite Reagan Rutherford (11 kills) also had strong showings in the victory.
“I think we’re just playing for the name on our jersey and we’re playing for Kentucky and we’re doing something we love,” Rutherford said after Saturday’s win.
Kentucky and head coach Craig Skinner finish the 2022 regular season with a 20-7 overall record and a 15-3 mark in SEC play.
The Wildcats have lost just once since Oct. 23.
UK shares the SEC title with Florida (23-5 overall and 15-3 in the SEC) after Florida won a five-set match at Ole Miss on Saturday night.
The Gators and Wildcats — now SEC co-champions — played a critical two-match series last weekend in Gainesville, Florida, that was set to determine which school would be in the driver’s seat for an SEC title.
But Florida and UK split that two-game set, leaving both schools tied atop the conference standings entering this weekend.
It’s no surprise that the SEC volleyball championship came down to — and will be shared by — the Gators and Wildcats.
Either Florida or Kentucky, or both schools, have won the SEC championship in every season dating back to 2017.
Kentucky’s streak of six straight seasons with at least a share of the SEC volleyball title isn’t the longest run in conference history, though.
Remarkably, Florida won at least a share of the regular season SEC volleyball championship in every season from 1991 through 2008.
Florida will receive the SEC’s automatic qualifying spot for the NCAA Tournament due to the head-to-head tiebreak between Florida and UK of total points scored in last weekend’s head-to-head series (139-136 in favor of Florida).
UK overcomes injuries, slow start to win SEC
Kentucky showed good resolve to continue its elite form in SEC play despite less-then-stellar showings during the nonconference season.
The Wildcats played a trio of marquee nonconference matches at home against Wisconsin, Louisville and Nebraska, and lost all three of those matches against schools that made last season’s NCAA Tournament Final Four.
UK then lost its first SEC match at home against LSU, before going 15-2 the rest of the season.
Skinner faced a daunting task this season in having to replace the offensive production vacated with the offseason losses of Madi Skinner (UK’s kills leader from last season who transferred to Texas) and Alli Stumler (second on UK last season in total kills and kills per set and lost to graduation).
The Cats succeed despite a roster that was often in flux due to injuries.
Only junior libero Riah Walker has appeared in all 27 matches for the Wildcats this season, and four of UK’s top five leaders in total kills (Rollins, Tealer, junior Elise Goetzinger and sophomore Erin Lamb) have all missed at least four matches this season.
“It’s been a tough year, it’s been a challenging year in a lot of different ways inside and outside the program,” Skinner said. “For our players to persevere, for our staff to persevere through a lot of ups and downs and to be able to come through and pull this out, you can’t replace that feeling.”
Skinner said UK used six or seven different lineups in SEC play alone this season.
“This one’s really sweet,” added Tealer. “It’s always hard to win the championship, but this year... I don’t know if there’s been more than probably 15 SEC games that we’ve played that we had our full roster (for). For us to persevere through all that and all the losses and all the uncertainty that we had to, it’s pretty special for this to be the outcome.”
During Friday evening’s Senior Day win over South Carolina, Tealer set a new UK record for block assists in a match with 13.
Prior to Friday’s match, Tealer announced she would be returning to the Cats in 2023 for her fifth year of eligibility.
“I think it’s become more and more of an expectation since I’ve gotten here,” Tealer said of winning the SEC. “We’re constantly playing for people that have come before us... For us to make them proud and do what they wanted to do or did do, and to keep doing it over and over again is really special for all of us.”
A continued and consistent presence for Kentucky this season, like last season, has been standout sophomores libero Eleanor Beavin and setter Emma Grome.
Beavin entered Saturday’s regular-season finale averaging exactly four digs per set, and Grome entered the match averaging just over 12 assists per set.
Skinner now holds a 421-137 overall record as UK’s head coach, and a stellar 269-79 mark in SEC matches.
The 2022 season marks the 12th straight season of 20 wins or more for the UK program, and the 15th such season in Skinner’s 18-year tenure as head coach.
Next up? The NCAA Tournament
The complete 64-team field for the NCAA Tournament will be announced at 7:30 p.m. Sunday during a selection show on ESPNU.
The field consists of 32 automatic qualifiers and 32 at-large bids.
The tournament features four regions with 16 teams each, and regional play will be hosted by the top 16 national seeds.
First and second-round matches will be played Dec. 1-2 or Dec. 2-3.
The national championship match will be Dec. 17 at the CHI Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska. The national title match will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Kentucky schools that are set to compete in the 2022 NCAA Tournament are Louisville, Kentucky and Western Kentucky.
Louisville (26-2 overall and 17-1 in the ACC) is ranked No. 4 in the AVCA coaches poll (a new poll comes out Monday) and No. 2 in the latest RPI rankings. Louisville has won at least a share of the ACC volleyball championship.
Kentucky (20-7 overall and 15-3 in the SEC) is ranked No. 16 in the AVCA coaches poll and No. 8 in the latest RPI rankings. This season will mark Skinner’s 18th appearance (all consecutive) in the NCAA Tournament.
What does Skinner think of Kentucky’s chances to secure a top-16 national seed for the NCAA Tournament?
“I think our résumé speaks for itself. Our stats speak for itself,” Skinner said. “Our offense has been good for most of the year and our defense, the way it’s come along the last couple weeks is significant. Regardless of where we’re seeded, there’s so much parity this year that anything can happen the first weekend.”
Western Kentucky (28-3 overall and 14-0 in C-USA) is ranked No. 21 in the AVCA coaches poll and No. 24 in the latest RPI rankings. WKU won the C-USA regular season championship for a fourth year in a row, but lost the C-USA Volleyball Tournament Championship match at home to No. 20 Rice.
Last season, Louisville was the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament and went undefeated until losing in the Final Four, which marked the first Final Four appearance in program history. Western Kentucky lost in the second round of last season’s NCAA Tournament, and finished the season with a 28-2 overall record.
Kentucky was the No. 7 overall seed for the 2021 NCAA Tournament, and entered the national postseason as the defending NCAA champion. But the Wildcats suffered a second-round loss at home to Illinois.