For Kentucky volleyball, the reign as national champions ends suddenly

·3 min read

You know what’s the only thing harder than winning a national championship in an NCAA sport? Repeating as champ.

NCAA Volleyball Tournament final: Illinois upsets No. 7 seed and defending national champ Kentucky 3-1 on Saturday night in Memorial Coliseum.

Truth be told, it was fairly obvious early this was not going to be the champs’ night. Kentucky dropped the first set of its second-round match to Illinois 25-22, the first set Craig Skinner’s team had lost since a five-setter Nov. 4 at South Carolina, the last time the Wildcats had lost a match.

And even after Kentucky captured the second set, the Cats fell behind 4-1, then 15-6 on the way to losing the third set by a surprising 25-10. With Illinois’ confidence growing, the die was set. By the fourth set, the Illini had streaked to a commanding 10-1 lead. And even when the Cats fought back to 23-20, it was too little, too late. The visitors took the final set 25-21 for the match.

“We knew it was going to take every bit of everything we had to beat this team, the national champs,” said Illinois Coach Chris Tamas, his 22-11 team now headed to the Sweet 16.

In his fifth year as head coach at Champagne-Urbana, Tamas was an assistant under John Cook at Nebraska from 2014-17. That’s the same John Cook that Skinner served as an assistant at Nebraska from 2000-04.

Tamas led Illinois to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in 2017, his first year as head coach, then the Final Four his second. This is his fourth NCAA tourney team in five years.

Saturday night, the Illini just sent everything back. Kentucky entered the match with an attack percentage of 30.1. It converted just 20.8 percent against the Illini. On the season, UK’s opponents mustered an attack percentage of 17.4. Saturday, Illinois’ percentage was 33.1.

“A lot of credit to Illinois,” said Skinner afterward. “They were really good. Just better than us.”

Despite its 11 defeats, the Illini did own some impressive road wins on its resume.

“We talked about how we’re maybe more prepared for this a lot more than other teams,” said Tamas about playing in front of the hostile crowd at Memorial. “We beat Penn State before a hostile crowd. We beat Purdue at Purdue before a hostile crowd.”

Still, few could have foreseen the Illini’s big runs — five straight points, then four more in the third set; seven straight early in the final set.

“They hadn’t dropped a set in a month and a half,” Tamas said. “We thought if we could push on maybe we could get them to think a little bit.”

And no one on the Kentucky side thought the Cats’ magical year would end so suddenly with such an uncharacteristic performance.

“Just really proud of our group,” Skinner said after his team finished 25-5. “We knew at some point the season was going to end. We weren’t thinking it was going to happen tonight.”

Skinner said he would be lying if he didn’t think his team was tired after winning the national title in the spring. The coronavirus pandemic pushed the tournament from its usual December spot on the calendar to the spring. UK defeated Texas for the school’s first NCAA volleyball title on April 24. Four months later, on August 19, the Cats were playing Western Kentucky in an exhibition match.

And though there were some familiar faces from a year ago, this was a different team, with some new faces, playing a different season.

“But that’s why I’m so proud of this group,” Skinner said of his Cats, who went 17-1 in the SEC to win its fifth straight conference title. “How rewarding is it to get to do what we do and win as much as we did the last 12 months.”

Unfortunately, Saturday night just wasn’t their night.

Kentucky’s Lauren Tharp (5) dives for the ball during Saturday’s match against Illinois in Memorial Coliseum. The Wildcats’ season ended in a 3-1 defeat.
Kentucky’s Lauren Tharp (5) dives for the ball during Saturday’s match against Illinois in Memorial Coliseum. The Wildcats’ season ended in a 3-1 defeat.

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