Kentucky volleyball’s defense of the NCAA championship it won in April — the program’s first ever national title — got off to a comprehensive start Friday night in Memorial Coliseum.
In front of a spirited crowd of 2,878 fans, Kentucky rolled to a straight-sets victory (25-15, 25-14, 25-19) over Southeast Missouri State in the first round of the 64-team NCAA Tournament in the Lexington sub-regional.
“Goosebumps ... BBN showed out tonight,” senior outside hitter Alli Stumler said of the home court advantage inside Memorial Coliseum. “Just goosebumps all over and awesome to see support from our whole state.”
Friday’s crowd means more than 9,450 fans have watched UK volleyball inside Memorial Coliseum in the last week, including plenty of representatives from other UK sports.
“Our student section and other student athletes that were here tonight was awesome to see,” said UK head coach Craig Skinner. “Our players I know are proud to represent Kentucky when they see a lot of their other student-athletes in the stands watching them.”
— Kentucky Volleyball (@KentuckyVB) December 4, 2021
The Wildcats (25-4) were led offensively by sophomore outside hitter Madi Skinner with 13 kills and Stumler with 11 kills, along with a career-tying performance by freshman setter Emma Grome.
Grome equaled her best-ever performance in a three-set match with 45 assists for the Wildcats. She also had 45 assists in a win at Tennessee on Oct. 27. The 45 assists recorded by Grome were the most in program history for a Wildcat making her NCAA Tournament debut.
“She’s stepped into such a crucial role and the way she’s just improved over the season has been incredible,” Madi Skinner said of Grome. “We have a lot of trust in her and she has a lot of trust in us. That consistency from her has allowed us to do our jobs. I think she’s one of the best setters in the country.”
“She’s spent her whole life preparing for this,” Craig Skinner added about Grome. “I think Emma naturally has a feel of who to set (the ball for) at the right time, which gives us a lot of balance.”
Grome helped guide the Kentucky offense to a .446 hitting percentage in Friday’s match, while UK held Southeast Missouri State to a hitting percentage of just .163.
“The pace of how fast they set that outside ball, and when they’re in system ... that’s really tough to defend,” said SEMO head coach Julie Yankus. “A lot of it was, well we want to double block the outside as much as we can, but Kentucky’s so well balanced we have to respect all of their attackers.”
SEMO, which won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament, finishes its season with a record of 26-8.
With the win, Kentucky, the No. 7 overall seed in the field of 64, advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday where it was to host Illinois, which defeated West Virginia in four sets in another first-round match in Memorial Coliseum on Friday.
“They’re physical, they have a lot of good arms on the pin, they serve well,” Craig Skinner said of Illinois. “I think it’s going to be a matter of us serving tough, being really good in transition ... it will be high-level volleyball.”
Friday also marked a historic win for Kentucky’s three-member senior class of Stumler, setter Cameron Scheitzach and libero Lauren Tharp. The trio won their 100th match at UK with Friday’s result.
Kentucky schools in the NCAA Tournament
All three Kentucky schools in this year’s NCAA Tournament advanced Friday night from the first round into the round of 32.
In addition to Kentucky’s three-set win over Southeast Missouri State, No. 1 seed Louisville continued its undefeated season (29-0) with a three-set victory over Illinois-Chicago while Western Kentucky (28-1) also defeated South Carolina in straight sets.
All three schools were to be in action in the second round Saturday night: Kentucky against Illinois, Louisville against Ball State and WKU against No. 8 Georgia Tech.
Earlier this week, Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner said it was amazing given Kentucky’s population base to have so many highly regarded teams participating in the NCAA Tournament.
“Per capita, athlete, I would say it’s probably at the top,” Skinner said of volleyball in the commonwealth.
Entering Saturday, UK, Louisville and WKU had a combined record of 82-5.
About Saturday’s match
Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament second-round match against Illinois ended too late to include a story in today’s Herald-Leader. Please visit Kentucky.com or watch Monday’s Herald-Leader print addition and e-edition for a game wrap-up and photos.