The nation got to see the very best of college volleyball on Saturday night. And when it was over, Kentucky, which hit .349, got to take home the NCAA Division I championship trophy after a four-set victory in Omaha over Texas, which hit .333.
It was not only Kentucky’s first national volleyball title, but the first for the sports-powerful SEC.
Alli Stumler was nothing short of magnificent for the Wildcats (23-1), who won 20-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-22.
“The moment we stepped off the plane in Omaha there was never a doubt that we were going to win this thing,” said Stumler, who had 26 kills with just two errors in 51 attacks to hit .471 to go with two aces, five digs and a block.
Kentucky libero Gabby Curry was equally magnificent as she recorded 14 digs and 13 assists, the last on an out-of-system ball that she set to Stumler, who ripped the ball to the floor in the CHI Health Center and ended the match.
“We stayed the course. We talked before the match and said we don’t how it’s going to go but we’re going to fight to the bitter end,” 16th-year UK coach Craig Skinner said. “Credit our team for staying the course.”
Madi Skinner had 19 kills for Kentucky and hit .455.
“Incredible job. She probably had more hands in her face than ever before and she produced,” Skinner said.
Avery Skinner, her older sister, had 14 kills, an assist, six digs, and four blocks. Azhani Tealer had eight kills, two digs, and two blocks, and Elise Goetzinger had three kills with one error in five swings, a dig, and three blocks.
Kentucky setter Madison Lilley had 53 assists, three blocks, and 19 digs, some spectacular.
“Kentucky was that good,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said.
Texas (27-2) dominated the first set, but never could keep pace with Kentucky again, even in a third-set that showcased the best of college volleyball on the biggest stage and ESPN2. Logan Eggleston led the Longhorns with 21 kills with one error in 50 attacks, three digs, and two blocks.
“I don’t think we have a weakness,” Skinner said. “I knew we had a chance. Did I think we’d only lose two sets in the NCAA Tournament? No, I didn’t think that.”
“They played amazing,” Eggleston said of Kentucky. “I’ve got to give them credit.”
Skylar Fields had 16 kills, two digs, and two blocks. Brionne Butler had eight kills, hit .400, and had a dig and three blocks. Molly Phillips had eight kills, hit .333, and added an assist, two digs, and three blocks. Asjia O’Neal had six kills, a dig, and four blocks. Elliott admitted Texas was hoping to get its middles involved more but just couldn’t.
Jhenna Gabriel had a kill, 52 assists, and six digs. Morgan O’Brien had a kill in her only attempt, 12 digs, three assists, and an ace. Nalani Iosia had nine digs, an assist, and two aces.
“We could not get them out of system,” said Elliott, whose Longhorns won the 2012 NCAA title and now have been in the championship three times since.
“Their better was better than our better tonight. We gave it the best we had but we didn’t win the serve-and-pass game.”
Texas hit .455 in the first set with 16 kills and one error in 33 attacks. The Longhorns hit .241 in the second set, .417 in a thrilling third set, but then .233 in the fourth.
“A lot of respect for the way they play the game,” Skinner said of Texas.
Both teams had four aces. Texas had 61 kills and 14 errors in 141 attacks. Kentucky had 70 kills and 17 errors in 152 attacks. Texas had 48 digs, while Kentucky had 55. Kentucky held a 9-7 blocking advantage.
Kentucky hit .216 in the first set, .375 in the second, .429 in the third, and .366 in the fourth. Stumler had six kills in each of the first three sets for Kentucky and then eight in the fourth set.
This was the first NCAA championship match without either a Pac-12 or Big Ten team since 1989 when Long Beach State beat Nebraska, which was then in the Big Eight.