Heading into Saturday’s match against Illinois, No. 7 Kentucky had hit above .300 in 10 of their last 11 matches and had held their opponents below the same mark for 17-straight games. But unfortunately for the Cats, those patterns didn’t continue against Illinois, as the Illini used a blistering hitting percentage to knock off No. 7 Kentucky in four sets (25-22, 20-25, 25-10, 25-21) and advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
For nearly the entirety of the season, the offensive side of the ball has been a strength of the Wildcats. Against Illinois, however, offense proved tough to come by as no one for Kentucky managed to tally more than 13 kills on the evening. In the third set alone, the Cats managed just five total kills with six errors, a key reason the Illini thumped the Cats 25-10 in the third frame.
Kentucky scrapped in the fourth set, but an early 10-1 deficit proved to be too much to overcome as the Cats never managed to get closer than three points.
After the match, UK head coach Craig Skinner reflected on his team’s ability to push forward despite the quick turnaround to the season following last season’s championship in April.
“This team has been an unreal group to weather some of the situations and storms that we’ve had over the last year. I’m incredibly proud of Kentucky Volleyball and the way we performed this year, and hats off to Illinois.
In what was likely her final match as a Wildcat, it was senior Alli Stumler that led the way in the kill column as she registered 13 kills on 49 swings with just two errors, good for a .224 clip. After the match, Stumler reflected on what turned out to be an incredible career in the Bue and White.
“It has been an unbelievable ride and really stinking fun,” Stumler said. “It makes it a lot better when you have cool people and just people who really care, really care about others and really care about the sport. Nothing I could have dreamed of. It couldn’t have gone any better, despite what happened tonight. I couldn’t have asked for it to be any better.”
Madi Skinner (11) and Reagan Rutherford (10) were the only other Cats to eclipse double figures in the match. Rounding out the scoring was Azhani Tealer with six kills, Bella Bell with five and Elise Goetzinger with four.
Despite freshmen setter Emma Grome’s best efforts, the Cats hit just .208 on the evening, in large part because the Illini attack targeted Grome any time she was in the back row to force someone else to take the second contact for the Wildcats. While Grome did manage to pick up 39 assists and a whopping 21 digs, it wasn’t enough as the Cats registered only 49 kills in the match compared to 71 for Illinois.
Paced by Grome’s 21, four Wildcats recorded at least seven digs. Freshman Eleanor Beavin had 14, Lauren Tharp had 10 and Stumler added seven. But Illinois’ attack proved to be far too much for the Cats to handle, as the Fighting Illini totaled a whopping 71 kills on a blistering .331 clip. Sophomore outside hitter Raina Terry set a new career high in kills for the Illini as she found the floor with 27 terminations on a .482 hitting percentage. Illinois recorded at least 15 kills in all four sets.
Despite the loss, the Wildcats still had an impressive season, finishing 25-5 overall and as the outright champions in the Southeastern Conference. With the victory, Illinois advances to the Sweet Sixteen where they will take on the winner of Nebraska/Florida State in Austin, Texas.