LEXINGTON, Ky. – One team in Saturday’s Regional Final hasn’t played this deep in an NCAA Tournament in 30 years. The other team has only missed playing in the Elite Eight eight times over the past 30 years. Fourth-seeded Kentucky (29-3), playing for the program’s first trip to the NCAA Championship rounds, will have the home-court edge.
Fifth-seeded Nebraska (29-4) will have the benefit of having been here before. Often.
“Nebraska is a heck of a program and has been really good for 30 years, even before John Cook,” Kentucky Coach Craig Skinner said. “John took it on even to another level.”
Skinner should know. He coached with Cook at Wisconsin from 1994 to 1996 and at Nebraska from 2000 to 2004. In 2005, Skinner took over the Wildcats program and has taken Kentucky to the NCAA Tournament in each of his 12 seasons. The model for his current team – maybe Skinner’s best in Lexington – should feel familiar to the Huskers.
“Both of their left sides are pretty physical,” Cook said. “I think Madison Lilley is doing a great job as a freshman setter and they pass the ball well. You know [Skinner’s] got subs he is putting in back there that are good passers and they play good defense. There is a reason they are seeded and we are here.”
The Wildcats’ attack is led by outside hitters Leah Edmond and Avery Skinner. Edmond, who ranked second in the SEC and 14th nationally entering the weekend at 4.53 kills per set, keyed Kentucky’s fifth-set rally in the Regional Semifinal win over BYU. She recorded five kills as the Wildcats climbed out of a 5-1 hole to win 15-9. Skinner, an SEC All-Freshman selection, is more than capable of making teams pay, too. She recorded 20 kills in the win over the Cougars, second only to Edmond’s 21.
Lilley makes it all go. The AVCA and SEC Freshman of the Year had 63 assists in the Regional Semifinal, and ranked third nationally at 12.09 assists per set entering Saturday. The Wildcats are also third in the country in team hitting percentage (.321).
Few teams make it harder on opposing offenses than Nebraska, however. The Huskers are holding opponents to .149 hitting this season, which ranks fourth nationally. Kentucky (.207) ranks 186th. Just one team, Purdue, has hit better than .300 against Nebraska this season and seven of the past 10 Husker opponents have been held below .110, including Colorado in Friday’s Regional Semifinal.
The Huskers will have to contend with what should be a raucous home crowd. Unlike Friday’s mid-day matches, a weekend game with a trip to the Final Four on the line should have Memorial Coliseum at full fervor.
“Oh, they'll be here,” Skinner said. “I have no doubt. It has been building and everyone is excited and it is a perfect time for a volleyball match on a Saturday . . . It is just like a football game. We are ready to go.”
The Wildcats are 16-1 at home this season, the lone loss coming to Florida, which knocked off Nebraska the opening weekend of the season.
A rowdy crowd won’t be new for Nebraska. Cook views playing in that environment as “easier” than Friday’ match in front of a half-full arena.
“There will be electricity and I think that will fuel us as much as it will Kentucky,” Cook said. “We like that and are used to that so that is what makes it exciting and fun.”
No. 4 Kentucky and No. 5 Nebraska square off at 3 p.m. (CT). The match is being telecast by ESNPU.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.