Volleyball falls to Kentucky in national championship

Molly Phillips and Asjia O'Neal stood tall in the middle, but the Texas Longhorns lost the national championship, 3-1, to Kentucky Saturday in Omaha (photo by Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos via Getty Images).

OMAHA, Neb. — Logan Eggleston and Skylar Fields had 21 and 16 kills, respectively, but it was not enough as the Kentucky Wildcats rallied after dropping the first set to beat Texas, 3-1 (20-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-22) and win the women’s volleyball national championship at the CHI Health Center.

The title was the first in the history of the UK program and the first by any team from the Southeastern Conference.

"I think there's two teams that I want to congratulate," Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said after the match. "The first one is ours. This is one of the most enjoyable rides I've had, as a coach. We had a lot of joy, we had a lot of hard work, we played two seasons and our kids gave us everything they had ... and tonight it wasn't enough. I think we hit .417 in Game 3 and we still didn't win the game.

"The second part is I want to congratulate Craig Skinner and the Kentucky Wildcats. They played phenomenal tonight, and we just could not get them out of system, we could not get any point-scoring runs, and they were just so efficient. No matter how hard we were serving, we just kept instructing ... trying to get tougher and tougher serves, and they were passing nails.

"Their 'better' was better than ours tonight, but I thought our team fought, I thought we gave everything we had, and we didn't win the serve-and-pass game. Against a team like that, you've got to be able to kind of run your middles, and get them going."

Texas, which had won two of seven previous trips to the championship match, finished its season with a record of 27-2. Kentucky, playing in its first title match, hoisted its trophy with a final record of 24-1.

Outside hitter Alli Stumler led both teams with a season-high 26 kills and hit a match-high .471, while teammates Madi Skinner and Avery Skinner — the daughters of former NBA and Baylor power forward Brian Skinner — added 19 and 14, respectively. UK setter Madison Lilley, the National Player of the Year, was spectacular while handing out 53 assists in a matchup between two of the best setters in the nation; UT’s Jhenna Gabriel had 52 helpers. Lilley also led both teams with 19 digs, seven more than Morgan O’Brien and Sydney Peterson, who shared the Texas lead with 12 each.

Texas dominated the first set, which never felt as close as the score. Asjia O’Neal had three blocks and a pair of kills for the Longhorns, who stifled Kentucky, which had the top-ranked offense in the country this season and in the NCAA Tournament. But the Wildcats heated up in the second set, to start the rally.

"Their offense did turn it up (in the second set)," Elliott said. "They hit .216 in Game 1, and then they hit .375, .429 and .368. There's a reason they're the best offensive team in the country. We got some free points early — I think maybe a little bit of nerves (for the Wildcats), they made some hitting errors — but we played extremely efficient. We put some pressure on and got our middles going early. Ultimately, we didn't pass quite as well as them, and a big part of our game plan was to get our middles involved, our middles and our right side. That was the challenge."

Known as an offensive juggernaut, Kentucky hit .366, but the Wildcats also shored up their performance on the defensive end. Texas hit just .233 in the match, marking the first time in the NCAA Tournament that the Longhorns failed to hit above .300.

The match was the 18th all-time between Texas and Kentucky; UT leads the series, 14-4.

Middle blocker Brionne Butler hit .400 and had eight kills and three blocks in the match, and joined Eggleston on the NCAA All-Tournament Team; UK was represented by Stumler, Lilley and Avery Skinner.

While still smarting from the defeat, Elliott said he enjoyed coaching this year's team as much as any.

"That's what I said in the locker room (after the match)," Elliott said. "We've had two seasons, and I've been to a lot of final fours, but I don't know if I've ever been as proud of a team that hasn't been ... all the way to the top of the mountain. We had a lot of things thrown at us, and we had to sacrifice a lot. Our kids stayed in their dorms, they stayed in their apartments, they were very safe about what they did. What was so cool about it, and the journey, was that ... during all of these hard conversations, it brought us closer together. We became a true family, and we had an immense amount of love for one another, and it was really the most enjoyable season I've ever had. They worked hard, they took care of each other, and more importantly, young people at this generation, or all generations, I guess ... they don't pump each other up a lot, and this group is always giving credit to somebody else, telling somebody how great they were, and that became our family. That's why there was so much joy in this.

"I was confident coming in to tonight's match, but we knew that if Kentucky played a great match, they could beat us, and they did that tonight. I really can't hang my head on anything. Kentucky just played that good."

The Texas volleyball team that came up short in the NCAA chamionship match against Kentucky could bring back all but one played from this year's roster next season (photo by Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos via Getty Images).

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