- Associated Press
Friday, April 23, 2021

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Madison Lilley was in seventh grade when she started going to the Kentucky volleyball camp. She was a high school freshman when she accepted coach Craig Skinner’s scholarship offer.

Eight years later, she’s the first player from the Southeastern Conference to be named national player of the year and her team is set to play in the NCAA championship match for the first time.

“It’s a long time coming, to say the very least,” the senior setter from Overland Park, Kansas, said Friday. “Think about when I started coming to camp and when I committed and now I’m here. I’m 22 and in my last season here at Kentucky after making history. This is everything I planned to do.”

Standing between the second-seeded Wildcats (23-1) and the national title Saturday night is No. 4 Texas (27-1). The Longhorns swept previously unbeaten top seed Wisconsin 3-0 in the semifinals and are in their fifth championship match since 2009.

“We’ve gotten better from week to week,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “I think we’re touching the ball better, we’re scrapping a little bit more and making second opportunities, I think our out-of-system setting has gotten consistently better and we’ve got great balance right now.”

Kentucky hadn’t lost a set since March 19 before eliminating Washington 3-1 Thursday. The Wildcats have been especially strong closing out matches in the tournament with an average last-set margin of just under nine points.

“This is a team of crazy competitors and it might sound cliche, but I have never been a part of a group that loves competing like we do,” Lilley said. “Now that we’re finally here, we’re soaking it in and we’re not taking no for an answer. We’re competing for each other, playing hard. We’ve always been doing that but now it’s a lot more heightened because we have the attention of the nation and the volleyball world now, which makes it a lot more fun.”

Lilley triggers the nation’s most efficient and fast-moving offense. The Wildcats are hitting .361 and feature strong arms in Alli Stumler, sisters Avery and Madi Skinner (no relation to Craig), and Azhani Tealer.

Texas has a strong backcourt and a group of imposing attackers led by Big 12 player of the year Logan Eggleston, Skylar Fields, Asjia O’Neal and Brionne Butler.

College volleyball, like other sports, has been disrupted by the pandemic. The SEC and Big 12, as well as the ACC, played in the fall; the Big Ten and Pac-12 did not. Skinner and Elliott said having a fall season worked to their teams’ advantage because the fall matches provided opportunities for experimentation with personnel and systems.

Elliott said there will be no surprises Saturday.

“Volleyball’s kind of turned into ‘Moneyball’ a little bit,” he said. “We have an 85-page scouting report we’re looking at and statistical numbers we can pull… We get all kinds of heat maps where their strengths and weaknesses are, and Kentucky is getting the same thing we are, I’m sure.

“This is about routines, and the biggest thing we need to do is be in our routines. This is another game and we need to make sure we’re prepared and relaxed so we can play confident and execute at a high level.”

The tournament was moved from the fall to the spring, the field was reduced from 64 to 48 teams, and all matches were played at the CHI Health Center as a precaution against COVID-19. In a normal year, an advancing team would play at two or three different sites.

As it is, the Wildcats and Longhorns have found creative ways to pass the time while in Omaha for nearly two weeks.

The Longhorns have taken walks around downtown, had a movie night and an ice cream social as a reward for making the semifinals. The Wildcats have spent their down time playing board games and cornhole, and the players even took a virtual painting class. There was schoolwork, too.

“We’ve created more memories here in Omaha than we would in a normal year,” Lilley said. “That’s definitely a plus, especially for it being our last little go-round for us seniors. I know we’ll cherish that. It has been a long time but I’m excited to leave here with a ‘dub’ tomorrow night.”

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