Less than 24 hours after their sweep of Murray State in the NCAA tournament opener, the No. 10 Kentucky Wildcats faced off against the No. 12 Purdue Boilermakers, who also closed out the first round in a sweep against East Tennessee State. The second round of the NCAA tournament ended in a sweep for the Wildcats (25-20, 25-21, 25-14).
“It’s unfortunate that two teams ranked in the top 12 have to play in the second round and that one has to go home,” said head coach Craig Skinner. “We knew it was going to be a battle, and our team really stepped up and made a statement today.”
Beginning the first set with skillful one-touch plays, a service ace from Alli Stumler and a 6-1 scoring run, Kentucky brought the offensive strength the Cats were known for in the 2018 season. However, with the Boilermakers’ hitting percentage more than doubling that of the Cats halfway through, the competition was fierce and the stakes of advancing were high.
Kentucky managed to keep a small lead throughout the set. After a 3-0 scoring run from Purdue, who led the first set in kills, Kentucky’s weaknesses began to show. But with the help of a ringing “Go Big Blue!” chant from the crowd, the Cats regained their footing. Although they continued to be challenged by the offensively skilled Boilermakers, Madison Lilley’s second kill brought home the set.
“They were a really good blocking team and I think that was a really good thing for us to see considering we’ll be seeing that in the rest of the tournament,” Lilley said. “It took us a little while to get settled in, but once we did we were getting kills on the one-on-one block situations.”
Purdue took its first lead of the match early in set two. Kentucky managed to tie it back a couple of times, and eventually reclaimed the lead at 9-8. The Cats went on a 5-0 scoring run, effectively widening the gap in scoring and giving the Boilermakers a new challenge.
Purdue came close to taking the lead back with attack errors on Kentucky’s behalf, eventually giving them a 3-0 run. After Leah Edmond returned from her break on the bench, she pushed Purdue’s defense past what it could manage with tricky kills that barely made it inside the bounds of play. That, coupled with Stumler’s second ace of the match, began to favor Kentucky in the crucial points of the set. With a kill by Brooke Morgan, the Cats won set two.
“We’re a really good team when it comes to [regrouping],” hitter Caitlyn Cooper said. “We just tell each other to be aggressive... but at the same time, know what you’re doing and get it done.”
Rolling into the third set, the Cats pushed offensively against Purdue. A 5-0 run early was brought on by a successful block and several crushing kills by Edmond and Cooper. It gave the Wildcats the largest early lead in any set (10-3).
Speared by many of Purdue’s attempts ending in attack errors, Morgan’s career-best fourth ace and the hitting percentage in the match finally largely favoring the Cats, Kentucky built a 17-7 lead in the set.
The Cats continued to roll over Purdue with a long 4-0 run and two-touch plays that gave the Cats a huge advantage in the final set. The gap they created in the final set was too much for the Boilermakers to come back from, and the Cats took the sweep with a final attack error from the visitors.
This game closed out the tournament’s opening rounds at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington and advances the Cats on to the Sweet 16 in Minnesota next weekend. The Cats never lost at home this year.
“I think that having a week to prepare is going to really help us,” Lilley said. “I know that we’re fired up, and we’re excited to go to Minnesota and play there... it’s going to be a really good matchup and we’re excited about it.”