For the ninth time under legendary head coach Craig Skinner, the Kentucky volleyball team has reached the Sweet 16 stage of the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats — the No. 8 overall seed in the national postseason — advanced out of the Lexington sub-regional following a Friday night win over Baylor (25-18, 25-22, 25-17) at Rupp Arena in front of 2,573 fans.
On Thursday, Kentucky defeated Wofford and Baylor topped James Madison to set up the second-round match.
Kentucky (21-7) got a team-high 14 kills from senior outside hitter Reagan Rutherford in the straight-sets victory. UK has now won 18 straight matches.
Baylor (17-13) was led by junior outside hitter Elise McGhee, who led all players in the match with 15 kills.
UK’s opponent in the Sweet 16, as well as the location of that match, was to be determined Saturday night. The two possibilities for UK’s Sweet 16 opponent were Arkansas and TCU.
Kentucky played Arkansas twice this season, winning at home in a five-set thriller and winning in a three-set sweep on the road. That win at Arkansas clinched the SEC championship for the Cats.
As far as a potential Elite Eight matchup goes, UK is in the same quarter of the bracket as No. 1 overall seed Nebraska. Kentucky lost at Nebraska in four sets in September.
Kentucky volleyball sweeps Baylor (25-18, 25-22, 25-17) to advance from the Lexington sub-regional.
For the ninth time under head coach Craig Skinner, the Kentucky Wildcats are in the Sweet 16. pic.twitter.com/hN7USfFPOm
— Cameron Drummond (@cdrummond97) December 2, 2023
Reagan Rutherford leads Kentucky in win over Baylor
The aforementioned Rutherford was one of three UK players to record double-digit kills against the Bears.
In addition to Rutherford’s 14 kills, the Wildcats got 13 from SEC Freshman of the Year Brooklyn DeLeye and 11 from fifth-year middle blocker Azhani Tealer.
Junior setter Emma Grome had 45 assists for UK and junior libero Eleanor Beavin had 13 digs to lead all players.
As a team, Kentucky hit an ultra-impressive .500, with 51 kills on 82 total attacks. Kentucky had 17 more kills than Baylor, on seven fewer attacks.
“Offensively, all five attackers can score at any given moment. Emma’s really good at distributing the ball to the right people at the right time. Handling the serve is important,” Skinner said. “But also having some things prepared ... that we didn’t do last night that showed (up) tonight, just having some things in your back pocket to be able to try and expose a big, physical team like Baylor.”
Azhani Tealer closes home career with another victory
Few players in the history of the UK volleyball program carry the accolades that fifth-year middle blocker Azhani Tealer does.
Tealer has won an SEC championship in all five of her seasons at UK (part of the Cats’ larger, active streak of seven straight league titles). She moved from outside hitter to middle blocker ahead of Kentucky’s national championship season in 2020-21, and led the Wildcats in kills per set (2.64) and blocks per set (1.21) during that history-making season.
Entering this season, Tealer’s career hitting percentage of .377 is the best in school history. Her .430 hitting percentage during the 2021 season is a single-season school record.
This high level of play has been sustained throughout Tealer’s career in Lexington: She’s been bestowed with All-SEC honors four times in her career, including this season as Tealer holds averages of more than 2 kills per set and nearly 1 block per set.
Tealer ranks in the top 10 in Kentucky volleyball history in total kills, total blocks and points. Her Kentucky career has featured plenty of winning: The Wildcats are a combined 117-28 since Tealer joined the program.
And while there’s still more volleyball to be played, it won’t come in the commonwealth, as Friday night put a bow on Tealer’s home career with the Wildcats.
This was something Tealer knew entering the match, and something she prepared for as well.
“I was thinking about it a little bit when I was on the court. I was like, man, this is tough. I’ve been here five years and I have loved every second. There’s not too many people who have taken more pride in wearing this jersey than I have,” Tealer said Thursday night after UK’s NCAA Tournament opener. “It’s going to be emotional, but hopefully we will come out on top and that will make it a bit sweeter. It’s something I have been thinking about and dreading, but we’re ready for it and we’re ready to win.”
In her final home match at Kentucky, Tealer had 11 kils on only 15 total attacks. She was the first Wildcat to reach double-digit kills in the match.
Across UK’s two NCAA Tournament matches so far, Tealer has 17 kills and no errors.
“I think the emotions were running high all day, and just preparing for a game like this and knowing it could be your last,” Tealer said when asked by the Herald-Leader about how she prepared for her final match in Lexington. “(The seniors) locked in and made sure we had the team ready to go and I think it showed in the way we played today.”
Rupp Arena hosts final Kentucky volleyball match, for now
The ongoing $82 million renovation of Memorial Coliseum forced four UK sports out of the historic venue for the 2023-24 season: Gymnastics, STUNT, volleyball and women’s basketball. And according to UK Athletics, everything is on schedule for the new-look Memorial Coliseum to be ready to go for the 2024-25 athletic season.
Kentucky volleyball spent its 2023 season playing home matches inside Rupp Arena, which previously hosted a UK match against Mississippi State in 2012.
While some acclimation was needed to get used to the distinct depth perception and sight lines of Rupp Arena (which boasts a capacity of 20,545 but has the upper level curtained off for volleyball matches), the Wildcats settled in just fine at their temporary home.
UK went 10-2 at home this season, losing only to Pittsburgh and Tennessee, both in September.
On Friday night, Skinner both acknowledged the distinct challenges of this season — specifically finding practice space and time along with the other UK sports displaced from Memorial Coliseum — while also praising the experience of playing in Rupp Arena. And hoping to do so again.
“I’m going to keep dreaming about filling (Rupp Arena) up,” Skinner said. “I will challenge the Big Blue Nation to get 22,000 people in here at some point in time. I think it’s going to happen, sooner (rather) than later. But I’m going to keep asking, keep begging new people to come watch us play and take a chance to get out of their comfort zone and see something new.”
UK reported a total attendance of 35,957 people that watched UK volleyball matches at Rupp Arena this season, for an average of 2,996 fans per match.
Louisville, Western Kentucky also advance NCAA Tournament
All three commonwealth volleyball teams in the NCAA Tournament were in action Friday.
Louisville also advanced to the Sweet 16 after sweeping Western Michigan in the Derby City. U of L began the national postseason by defeating Wright State in four sets Thursday night.
Western Kentucky defeated Coastal Carolina in straight sets in a first-round match Friday evening. The Hilltoppers (30-4 overall and winners of 25 straight matches) were to play sub-regional host Tennessee in a second-round match Saturday night in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The Hilltoppers have now won at least one NCAA Tournament match in five straight seasons.