Prior to Wednesday night’s match against No. 21 Tennessee, No. 5 Kentucky hadn’t played a ranked team since a five-set win against No. 16 Stanford on September 19th. And with Tennessee just two games behind them in second place in Southeastern Conference play, this edition of the Border Battle was sure to be a slugfest.
Except it wasn’t.
Just before first serve it was announced that Kentucky’s leader in total kills on the season, Madi Skinner, would be out for the match with a non-covid related illness. And in her place, freshman Erin Lamb would see significant playing time for the first time in her Wildcat career. And thanks to her and senior Alli Stumler, the Wildcats quickly dispatched Tennessee in straight sets (25-17, 25-19, 25-19) to improve to 9-0 in conference play.
Heading into the match, the Volunteers were among the tops in the conference in nearly every statistical category. They were 3rd nationally and first in the SEC in blocks per set (2.98), third in hitting percentage (.273), second in opponent hitting percentage (.177), first in assists per set (12.99), first in kills per set (14.32) and fourth in digs per set (15.03).
But none of that mattered against the Cats, as freshman setter Emma Grome did a masterful job of running the offense for Kentucky once again. Grome tallied a whopping 45 assists on the match and directed the Kentucky attack to a hitting clip of .407. The Cats totaled 53 kills compared to just 35 for Tennessee and had 20 after the first frame alone. Kentucky totaled just nine errors through three sets and saw four Wildcats reach nine or more kills in the match.
Alli Stumler came out of the gate firing in Skinner’s absence and found the floor with a match-high 15 terminations on a .371 clip. Lamb totaled a career-high 12 kills with just one error on 20 swings, good for a blistering .550 clip. Azhani Tealer was the other Wildcat to reach double figures, totaling 11 kills on a .429 attacking percentage. And right behind them was Bella Bell, who totaled nine kills with no errors on a .600 clip.
Defensively, Kentucky exerted its will on the Volunteers, out-blocking them 6.0 to 5.0 and limiting their attack to just .208 hitting, well below their season average. Bell led the charge at the net defensively once again, recording 4.0 blocks to lead all players. Reagan Rutherford added 3.0 of her own, Tealer had 2.0 and Stumler, Lamb and Grome each added one.
Eleanor Beavin was terrific on the back line, picking up 14 digs on the evening. The freshman also contributed a pair of assists and an ace to the winning effort as well. Stumler and Lauren Tharp each picked up seven digs of their own, Riah Walker had six and Grome added five.
With the win, Kentucky improves to 16-3 and picks up its second ranked win of the season. Tennessee falls to 16-5 and now sits at third in the conference with a record of 8-3 in the SEC. Kentucky will take the week off before a road series against South Carolina next Thursday in Columbia. First serve is set for 7:00 pm and will be broadcast live on SEC Network+.