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Volleyball Final Four vs Kentucky preview/game thread

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#6 Washington makes fifth appearance in national semifinals

Storming back from down 2-0 against Pittsburgh earned Washington their first Final Four appearance since 2013.
Mark Kuhlmann/NCAA Photos

Husky Volleyball has returned to the Final Four for the first time since 2013 as they seek their second national title and first since 2005. Interestingly, all four teams remaining are conference champions of what are generally the four best leagues in NCAA women’s volleyball. The Pac-12 champ Huskies face SEC champ Kentucky in the first national semifinal, while the second semifinal pits Big Ten champ Wisconsin against Big 12 champ Texas. The winners play for the title on Saturday night.

Who: #6 Washington (20-3, 17-3 Pac-12) vs #2 Kentucky (22-1, 19-1 SEC)

When: Thu, April 22, 4pm PDT

How to watch: ESPN or WatchESPN

Series History

Washington and Kentucky have met a total of four times, with the Huskies holding a 3-1 edge. Two of the meetings were in very early history: UW won 2-0 in the AIAW tournament way back on 12/11/80 (AIAW was the predecessor to NCAA women’s sports, featuring more matches but only best-of-three instead of best-of-five). Kentucky’s lone win came on 9/10/88, a 3-1 win in an early-season tournament hosted by Purdue.

The other two meetings are recent — no doubt Kentucky will be looking for some revenge. Washington has knocked Kentucky out of two of the last four NCAA tournaments:

  • 12/3/16, Round of 32 in Seattle: #8 Washington 3, Kentucky 0 (25-21, 25-11, 25-20). Only player on either team’s roster from that match that still is today is UW redshirt senior serving specialist Maria Bogomolova, who redshirted that season.
  • 12/13/19, Sweet 16 in Waco, Texas: #8 Washington 3, #9 Kentucky 1 (25-16, 26-24, 15-25, 25-22). Although many players return from that match, not as many as you would expect given that it was only a year ago: Washington graduated do-it-all OH Kara Bajema, MB Avie Niece, L Shayne McPherson and DS Cailin Onosko; Bajema and Niece were both stellar in UW’s narrow win. Kentucky superstar OH Leah Edmond is gone, as are RS Caitlyn Cooper and MB Leah Meyer. The other MB to start in that match for UK was Kendyl Paris, who is still on the roster but has only played sparingly off the bench.

Starters from 2019 meeting expected to start again in the rematch

  • Washington: RS Samantha Drechsel, OH Claire Hoffman, S Ella May Powell, MB Lauren Sanders
  • Kentucky: L Gabby Curry, S Madison Lilley, OH Alli Stumler

What to watch for

Ruthlessly efficient offense. The Wildcats have the best offense in the NCAA, hitting an absurd .362 as a team on the season. Kentucky has only hit below .300 as a team four times this season, with a season-low of .256 — Washington’s season average is .255. Madison Lilley has a very good argument for being the best setter in the country, one of three setters to make the AVCA’s First-Team All-America (along with Powell and Wisconsin’s Sydney Hilley). All five of UK’s regular hitters hit above .335, which is basically unheard of.

Update (11:40 AM): Madison Lilley has been named the AVCA National Player of the Year.

In Kentucky’s most recent match, 7th-seeded Purdue had way too many offensive struggles for this to matter, but the Boilermakers were able to record seven blocks and get Kentucky’s offense out of system while also serving reasonably well to get the Wildcats to hit that season-worst mark of .256. If Kentucky hits significantly over .300, it’s hard to imagine UW will have a way to keep up — the Huskies have hit over .300 in just two of their eight matches against top-20 foes, one of which came against significantly-shorthanded Utah.

To win, the Huskies will have to build on what UK’s last opponent was able to do defensively. The Huskies have a similarly good block to Purdue but better serving — can UW force Kentucky out of system with strong serving and get the match into a more chaotic defensive battle with longer rallies? With three pin hitters that can go on streaks and a setter who excels at making plays on the run, Washington might be the best out-of-system offense in the country (that’s not to say they want to be out of system — everybody is better in than out — but UW has less of a dropoff) and has better blocking/serving than Kentucky. UW’s best shot is trying to force this match to get “ugly” — an in-system Kentucky offense is almost always going to score anyway, so you may as well take a bigger risk of more service errors.

Another possible weakness for Kentucky: they’ve shown a tendency to allow an opposing pin hitter to go off for big numbers. A recent example came in their second-round win over UNLV when Rebels star Mariena Hayden torched the UK defense for 19 kills on .467 hitting in just 3 sets. It didn’t remotely affect the final result — nobody else for UNLV did anything offensively and Kentucky’s own offense was on fire — but if an Honorable Mention All-American like Hayden can post those kinds of numbers, All-Americans Samantha Drechsel or Claire Hoffman should be capable of it, or perhaps even streaky Pacific North Freshman of the Year Madi Endsley.