No. 7 Kentucky volleyball was stunned 3-1 by Illinois in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night in Lexington.
The loss stifles Kentucky’s attempt to become back-to-back national champions.
Alli Stumler led the Wildcats with 13 kills, followed closely by Madi Skinner who had 11. Despite their best efforts, Kentucky was out-killed 71-49 by Illinois.
Kills were not the only metric won by the Illini, as they recorded more attacks, digs, and blocks than Kentucky all while hitting .331 in the win.
“Obviously a lot of credit to Illinois,” Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner said after the loss. “They were really good tonight. We figured it would probably come down to a game about the system and being able to terminate balls when they’re not perfect and Illinois was really good at that tonight.”
Kentucky entered the match after knocking off Southeast Missouri State 3-0 in the first round. The win over the Redhawks was the ninth sweep in a row for the Cats, having not surrendered a set since their Nov. 4 loss at South Carolina.
“Kentucky was a team who hadn’t dropped a set in their last month,” Illinois head coach Chris Tamas said. “We knew if we could kind of push on them a little bit then maybe we could get to them and force them to [overthink] a bit. I think we were able to do that tonight.”
The Illini took the lead with a first set win, and never surrendered it en route to victory. Kentucky was able to come back to lead the first set 9-8 after a 4-0 scoring run after being down early. It would be the final time the Cats led in the first.
Despite being down once more, another 4-0 scoring run late allowed UK to tie Illinois at 21, but a quick 3-0 run the opposite way resulted in match point for the Illini. Reagan Rutherford recorded a kill that stopped the run, but it was immediately followed by a kill for the opposition, resulting in the first set loss.
The second set remained close, with Kentucky leading much of the set. A kill by Rutherford late would spark a 3-0 run by the Cats to give them a set point.
Illinois’ Kyla Swanson stopped the run, but Rutherford added another kill to her total to claim what would ultimately be the only set win for the Wildcats.
The third set spelled disaster for Kentucky, as they found themselves in a 3-0 hole at the start. The deficit would only get worse as a string of scoring runs by Illinois eventually resulted in Kentucky finding themselves down 20-7.
Kentucky kept fighting to break up scoring runs, but the deficit was far too much to overcome as a kill by Illinois’ Jessica Nunge gave the Illini a 25-10 set victory.
The loss was the worst single set loss of Kentucky’s season, overtaking their 25-11 set loss to No. 2 Wisconsin in early September.
Still reeling from the previous set, Kentucky once again found themselves in a 3-0 hole that would only get worse. After a successful challenge by the Illini, Kentucky found themselves down 10-1 with their season on the line.
The Cats fought back into the set, getting the deficit as low as three, but Swanson recorded one final kill for the Illini that ended Kentucky’s season with a 25-21 set loss.
UK graduates three seniors this season, including Stumler. All three shared one final moment on the court before departing for their last time as players.
“I think my words were: ‘this is stinkin’ horrible’,” Stumler said. “It’s just been phenomenal to have a fanbase like the Big Blue Nation. They come out in big numbers and they’re loud. Our fans are truly the best so just to get one last moment with them was awesome.”
Despite the reigning champions falling early, the NCAA Women’s Volleyball National Championship continues on. With their win, Illinois will go on to challenge the winner of No. 10 Nebraska and Florida State next weekend in the Sweet 16.