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Kentucky beats Huskies, advance to 1st NCAA volleyball final

UW’s improbable run ends with 3-1 defeat in semifinal

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Washington's Marin Grote (12) bumps the ball over Kentucky's Azhani Tealer (15) during the first set of a semifinal in the NCAA women's volleyball championships Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Omaha, Neb.
Washington's Marin Grote (12) bumps the ball over Kentucky's Azhani Tealer (15) during the first set of a semifinal in the NCAA women's volleyball championships Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/John Peterson) Photo Gallery

OMAHA, Neb. — Kentucky will play for its first national championship in women’s volleyball after beating Washington in four sets in the NCAA semifinals Thursday night.

The second-seeded Wildcats will play Saturday against No. 4 Texas (27-1), which knocked off No. 1 Wisconsin 26-24, 25-19, 25-23.

“Everything from getting to the final four and beyond is going to be an accomplishment, and it’s significant,” Kentucky coach Craig Skinner said. “You can see the excitement in the players, and no one will ever take this away from them.

“It’s hard to get too far ahead of ourselves and have too much excitement because there’s a huge task ahead. We’ve recruited great players and we have a great staff. For us to be living a dream like this, there’s no monetary value or material thing you can put on that.”

The Wildcats (23-1) lost a set for the first time in the tournament and came from six points down to win the third. But their offense, No. 1 in the nation statistically, was in top form in the fourth set and kept sixth-seeded Washington from continuing its improbable run in the tournament.

“Our team showed serious toughness,” Skinner said.

Avery Skinner led the Wildcats with 19 kills and national player of the year Madison Lilley had a season-high 63 set assists and 14 digs. The Wildcats won 25-18, 23-25, 25-23, 25-17.

Washington (20-4) had become the first team to win three five-set matches in an NCAA tournament, and midway through the match it looked as if the Huskies might force this one to go the distance.

But Kentucky committed only three attack errors in the fourth set, hit .520 and finished off the Huskies when Alli Stumler pounded her 13th kill.

The Wildcats avenged a loss to Washington that knocked them out of the 2019 tournament in the regional semifinals.

“We knew it would take a lot to sideout with them for long periods, and we were able to do that for a good portion of the time,” Washington coach Keegan Cook said. “It was unfortunate to let that third set get away from us. We served at a high level, and they were able to weather those storms.”

Washington couldn’t find an offensive rhythm in the first set, and Kentucky scored 12 of the last 17 points and looked to be in full control.

The Huskies adjusted in the second set, got their block set up and scored seven of the last eight points to hand the Wildcats their first set loss since March 19.

Kentucky came back from a 22-16 deficit to take the third set, the biggest margin the Wildcats have overcome this season. Skinner had five kills during a closing 9-1 run, but the key moment came when Azhani Tealer’s kill pulled the Wildcats to 22-21. Cook argued Tealer committed a net violation on the play, but he had no challenges left and the point stood.

Samantha Drechsel had 18 kills and Ella May Powell had 41 assists to lead the Huskies.

Texas used a powerful all-around performance to post a surprising three-set sweep of top-seeded and previously unbeaten Wisconsin.

The Longhorns will be making their seventh appearance in the final and first since 2016. They won national titles in 1988 and 2012.

Texas has beaten three straight opponents from the Big Ten to reach this point. The Longhorns posted 3-1 wins over Penn State and Nebraska before taking down the Badgers.

The Badgers (18-1) hadn’t been swept since the 2019 national championship match against Stanford.

Big 12 player of the year Logan Eggleston had 17 kills to lead the Longhorns.. Skylar Fields had 12 kills and Asjia O’Neal and Brionne Butler added 11 apiece.

The match ended after Texas won a challenge on the final point. Eggleston was initially ruled to have sent the ball out of bounds on a kill attempt. Video showed the ball touched a Wisconsin player on the way out.

Texas won an opening set in which neither team led by more than three points. The Longhorns broke open the second set with an 11-5 run, and after Wisconsin got back to 21-18, they scored four of the last five points.

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