Thanks to a masterful setting performance from freshman setter Emma Grome, the No. 7 Kentucky volleyball team coasted past Southeast Missouri State Friday night in straight sets (25-15, 25-14, 25-19) to advance to the round of 32 of this year’s NCAA Volleyball Tournament.
Fresh off of being honored as the SEC Freshman of the Year, Grome proved just how valuable she is to the Wildcats as she dished out a whopping 45 assists through just three sets of play. Grome’s 45 assists mark the highest total in program history for a Wildcat in her first-career NCAA Tournament match. The Cats hit an impressive .446 on the evening with six Wildcats recording five or more kills in the match.
Offensively, Kentucky was once again led by its one-two punch on the outside in Madi Skinner and Alli Stumler. Skinner and Stumler tallied 13 and 11 kills, respectively and both hit at least .400. Reagan Rutherford and Bella Bell both had solid nights of their own, as they each recorded seven terminations on the evening. And middle blockers Azhani Tealer and Elise Goetzinger rounded out the majority of the scoring with five kills each.
After the match, UK head coach Craig Skinner was pleased with his team’s balance offensively, but cited a need to adjust defensively mid-match as an area of improvement moving forward.
“I thought we came in and were very efficient offensively for most of the match,” UK head coach Craig Skinner said. “Defensively it took us a while to get going and get used to what their patterns were and how they were going to attack us offensively. So, we need to be a little bit better at that and adjusting as the match goes on tomorrow.”
Defensively, freshman Eleanor Beavin was a pest on the back line as she picked up a match-high 15 digs. Stumler and sophomore Riah Walker each added six digs of their own and Elise Goetzinger and Emma Grome each had three.
At the net, Bell had yet another solid outing defensively for the Cats as she totaled a match-high 7.0 blocks. Rutherford added 4.0 rejections of her own, Stumler had 3.0, Grome had 2.0 and Tealer and Skinner each added one.
With the victory, Kentucky improves to 25-4 and advances into the round of 32 where they will take on Illinois with a spot in the Sweet Sixteen on the line. The Illini didn’t receive a seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament but finished the regular season with a 20-11 record and were receiving votes in the most recent edition of the AVCA Top 25 Coaches Poll.
After the match, coach Skinner noted Illinois’ physicality and emphasized an importance on ball control as a major key to Saturday’s game.
“They’re a good team. They’ve been through a lot of really good matches. They’re physical, they have a lot of good arms on the pin, they serve well. So, I think it’s going to be a matter of us serving tough, being really good in transition, being available, handling the ball and putting the ball on Emma’s head so we have not just one option, but three options each time.
First serve against Illinoi is set for 5:00 pm ET Saturday and will be broadcast live on ESPN+.