Well, no reason to waste any time here. The no. 7 seeded Kentucky Volleyball team just had their season snapped much shorter than they imagined. An older and superior Illinois team handled the ‘Cats Saturday night throughout to win in four sets and advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
I’ll keep the recap fairly brief. Kentucky and Illinois looked like even teams through two sets. The Illini took over early in the first set and led by small amounts for most of the set before winning 25-22. Then Kentucky earned an early lead in the second set and wound up winning 25-20.
The third set was where things fell apart. Kentucky was only down one at 6-5 but just completely fell apart from there. Illinois blitzed the ‘Cats. A 14-2 run put them up 20-7. And they faced almost no resistance en route to a 25-10 set victory. Without a question that’s the worst set Kentucky has played in the last two seasons.
In the fourth, UK let Illinois handle them again. A 10-1 start pretty much evaporated any hope of a comeback. However, the ‘Cats actually did battle back to cut it to four at 12-8. But Illinois got right back on top and eventually led at match point at 24-17 off a questionable net violation call.
Kentucky rallied with four points in a row but eventually gave up the final point to lose 3-1 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It really sucks that this team — which played above itself for most of the year — went out with at their worst.
The difference in this year’s group and the girls from last Spring is that third and fourth set. Too many times this season, and more so early on, Kentucky would wilt the face of adversity.
What made last season’s group title-winning great was that they elevated their game in those situations. They reflected their motto: “pressure is privilege.” When the going got tough, Madison Lilley, Gabby Curry and Alli Stumler got better.
Stumler did all she could tonight, but the entire team was just outmatched. It didn’t come down to a play here or there. Illinois was simply the better volleyball team. They exploited Kentucky’s weaknesses and deserved to win. Props to them.
Lastly, I want to bid goodbye to Kentucky’s senior class, who was in tears as they waved goodbye to the Memorial Coliseum crowd for the final time. Alli Stumler, Lauren Tharp and Cameron Scheitzach.
Scheitzach was a setter who never got a ton of run in the actual lineup and spent most of her career under Madison Lilley. Stumler and Tharp were key pieces on the championship team last Spring. And Stumler finishes her career as a two-time All-American (and possibly three-time).
Great careers and bright futures for those young women. Want to specifically highlight Lauren too, who was especially overwhelmed on her way out of the arena. She was an elementary and middle school classmate of mine and it’s been cool to get to watch someone who shared Mrs. Wagner’s math class with me compete on the highest stage and win a national title.
For the rest of the team, the future is extremely bright. Kentucky gets almost all of its rotation back for 2022 with another stellar recruiting class on the way. Oh, and they’ve got some serious future starpower with Emma Grome, Madi Skinner and Eleanor Beavin.
Overall, a successful season. Plus, finally, this group will get a breather after playing more games in a calendar year than any other Kentucky Volleyball team in school history.