It’s been a long time waiting for UK Volleyball and head coach Craig Skinner, but in his 16th season at the helm of the program, he’s led Kentucky to its first-ever Final Four and a shot at the National Championship.
As the second overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky has been a goliath all season long. They stormed through a 20-game all-SEC schedule nearly unblemished, winning 18 of their 23 total games in straight sets (3-0), including all three of their tournament games.
Kentucky also has its best record in school history and its highest-ever NCAA Tournament seed, but it doesn’t stop there. They have the National Player of the Year, senior setter Madison Lilley, and the National Coach of the Year, according to the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA).
Tonight, they’ll face off against the no. 6 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament: the University of Washington. The Huskies have a richer history, but they will be underdogs in Omaha this time around.
Unlike Kentucky, Washington wasn’t picked to be here at the beginning of the season. They had just lost their All-American star hitter and opened the year with a 3-0 loss to Arizona State, who wound up finishing 6-14 in the Pac-12.
Since that loss, the Huskies turned things around, going 14-2 to close out the regular season, sweeping another national seed, Utah, on their way to a Pac-12 Championship to earn a no. 6 national seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Their run thus far in the postseason hasn’t been as easy as Kentucky’s. While the ‘Cats have shredded each of their three opponents 3-0 — most recently, 7th overall seed Purdue — Washington endured more struggles.
The Huskies inched by. Unseeded second-round opponent Dayton took them to five sets, then 11th seeded Louisville drew them out to five sets as well and had them on the ropes, up 11-5 in the final set before a remarkable comeback effort propelled them to a 15-13 fifth-set victory to barely outlast the Cards.
In the Elite Eight, Washington caught a break as unseeded Pittsburgh upset their way past Utah and 3rd seeded Minnesota to make the national quarterfinals, where they gave the Huskies all they could handle, eventually falling 3-2.
Kentucky swept a stronger slate of NCAA Tournament opponents while Washington squeaked by a friendly draw in a trio of sweat-it-out 3-2 matches. Kentucky is the dominant force, Washington is more of a slight Cinderella.
Washington’s three losses on the year came to three unseeded teams with 26 combined losses, while UK’s only misstep came against a 7th-ranked Florida team that they swept the next day.
Make no mistake, Kentucky is the better, more talented team. They should win, or, at least, they’re expected to. Even though Wisconsin is the no. 1 overall seed and faces Texas in the other Final Four game, several announcers and analysts throughout the tournament have expressed that they feel Kentucky is the team to beat.
UK has the no. 1 rated offense, the best setter and player in the country in Madison Lilley (so glad I can officially say that), the best coach in the country, the best set of hitters in the country, an elite defense powered by one of the best liberos in the country, Gabby Curry.
Kentucky has been a premier program for years now. They finally summited that Final Four hump. Now, it’s time to close the deal. They have the players, they have the coach, and they have a title just inches from their fingertips.
They face Washington at 7 p.m. on ESPN. Tune in, and GO ‘CATS!!
If you’re interested, check out their highlights from the 3-0 sweep of Purdue earlier this week: