The No. 9 seeded Kentucky volleyball team keeps on rolling after sweeping the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks 3-0 (25-20, 25-15, 25-19) in an NCAA Tournament First Round matchup for its ninth straight win in front of a rowdy Memorial Coliseum crowd on Friday night.
Per usual, outside hitter and SEC Player of the Year Leah Edmond continued to dominate with her team-high 19 kill performance to go with a .405 hitting percentage and four digs. Fellow hitter Alli Stumler was behind Edmond, going for 12 kills and nine digs.
"I think it's the people that I'm around. First with Gabby [Curry] and Alli [Stumler] and Lauren (Tharp) behind me for the balls that I lost in transition, Also, all of the hitters we have," Edmond said. "When you have hitters like Caitlyn [Cooper] on the right side or in the middle, it really opens up the net for us to have one-on-ones, when usually we're double blocked."
Setter Madison Lilley lived up to her position name and help set up the Cats offense. She notched a double-double with 33 assists and 10 digs. The Cats' biggest defensive contributions came from SEC Co-Defensive of the Year Gabby Curry. Curry punched out a team-high 15 digs.
She also got some help off the bench from middle blocker Kendyl Paris and opposite hitter Caitlyn Cooper. Paris and Cooper each had a team-high five blocks, while the two combined for 12 kills.
"I feel like our team in general has a good connection overall. So, we had the connection where we know what we need to do to make the next person better," Cooper said. "If we keep it up, we'll be fine."
Cooper's defensive play certainly got UK head coach Craig Skinner's attention.
"Cait [Cooper] has a couple of crucial blocks to stop some runs. And then we got on some serving opportunities. They got it close and then we had a couple of serving runs to separate ourselves. Playing really good defense in the tournament is really important,” Skinner said.
After a strong start by the Cats that gave them a 15-9 lead in the first set, the Redhawks climbed up to cut their their deficit to three. After taking a timeout though, the Cats stormed ahead, stealing the first set 25-20 thanks to strong kills from Cooper and Paris, respectively.
But SEMO only pushed their feet on the gas pedal. They opened the second set with a brief lead. The Redhawks were neck-and-neck with the Cats throughout most of the set before UK got ahead 22-13, pushing SEMO to burn another timeout. A Stumler kill gave the Cats a 25-15 set win.
Still though, SEMO wouldn't let up. The majority of the final set was a neck-and-neck race. At one point the Redhawks trailed by a slim 19-17. But it was a solid defense of Cooper and Paris and paved the way for Kentucky to score the final four points of the set to cap off the sweep, 25-19.
As hard as the Redhawks tried to come back, SEMO head coach Julie Yankus said that the Cats found ways to "put those points away" in the end.
"They went on a few little runs of points. We had some great long rallies that just were battles and really fun to watch I’m sure as a fan that we were getting into, but then they would wind up putting that away in the end," Yankus said.
UK won't have much time to celebrate as they have a date with the Michigan Wolverines tomorrow night at 7 p.m. back at Memorial Coliseum.