No. 4 Texas (27-1) will face No. 2 Kentucky (23-1) in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship game Saturday (ESPN2 / ESPN App, 8:00 p.m. ET).
The Wildcats reached their first final with a 4-set win over Washington in the first semi-final, while the Longhorns will contest their seventh final and the first since 2016 after beating Wisconsin.
Which team has the advantage? Who are the players to see? ESPN’s volleyball gurus abandon the matchup.
Who are the players featured on each team?
Katie George (ESPN analyst, former Louisville star setter): The game will certainly depend on the settlers, whose distribution will be crucial and who will determine who and when will be equally important. So I’ll keep an eye on Logan Eggleston from Texas and Alli Stumler from Kentucky, who have both proven they can take on a match if necessary. They all have to do incredible things to improve their teams. Eggleston, the Big 12 Player of the Year, was delighted and had 17 kills against Wisconsin. Stumler was very efficient against Washington (13 kills, 2 mistakes to hit .344) but has to demand the ball from Madison Lilley so she can produce even more in the championship.
Sam Gore (ESPN studio host): With as many offensive weapons as these teams (each had four players with double-digit kills in the semi-finals), success begins with which setter makes the best decisions. Lilley and Jhenna Gabriel have many attackers to choose from. The setter who navigates to whom and when to pass gives his team an edge.
Salima Rockwell (ESPN analyst, former Penn State setter and the US national team): Kentucky’s Lilley need to get this offense under control as they want to get off to a strong start after the Wildcats dropped their first set of the tournament against Washington in the semifinals. For Texas, Skylar Fields was so good (12 kills and two digs in the semifinals) and has to be back on Saturday.
Holly Rowe (ESPN reporter): I also stay with the typesetters. American Volleyball Coaches’ Association National Player of the Year, Lilley continues to do everything for Kentucky: serve, hire and save. It’s the engine that makes Kentucky so efficient. Watch out for Gabriel in Texas. According to Longhorn coach Jerritt Elliott, Gabriel is the team’s “ghost” as their encouragement, their play and their position to succeed are contagious.
Paul Sunderland (ESPN analyst, Olympic champion): This is a tough question as both teams have so many weapons. For Texas, Gabriel was a notable improvement, giving the Longhorns an offensive advantage given their long list of hits. For the Wildcats, I’m going out a little here, but Libero Gabby Curry will be the key. If they can keep Kentucky in the system with their reception, the Wildcats have a great chance against Texas.
You train Kentucky or Texas. What’s your strategy for each team?
Texas beat Wisconsin in straight sets to secure their place in the national championship.
George: Texas must continue to put pressure from the service line, as we’ve seen throughout the NCAA tournament. Yes, they miss a few per set, but they attack their opponents’ passersby and force the offense out of the system. Washington lined up a couple of runs as they drove Kentucky out of the system and Lilley was on the run, kicking lots of balls. Kentucky hitters fought for a short time when Lilley was unable to carry out her offensive effectively.
Kentucky, meanwhile, needs to be disciplined online. The first line of defense is the block. The Wildcats are a good size physical team – they have their hands full with the variety of skilled thugs that Texas pulls off at each game. Kentucky takes patience, eye work, and disciplined hands to slow attacks. If the block gets touch to help defend the backcourt behind them, Kentucky can transition, but must first keep the ball off the ground to do so. Defense (blocking and digging) will be key for the cats.
Blood: It’s the same strategy for both teams – get the other team out of the system. And whoever does it best wins. Both teams are so similar in their strengths, but the one who can disturb the other with an excellent serve and pass can impose himself on the other and take the title home with him.
Rockwell: For Texas, Kentucky has to have a tough time getting in rhythm – the Wildcats’ outsides work by aiming the ball low and flat at them and attacking them defensively on the back court by bringing them to the ground. The Longhorns should also attack the right side of the court to get Lilley to play the first ball – she makes Kentucky go and keeps it in the system. For the Kentucky, he must control first contact and hit the Texas block at speed. Be patient and win the long rallies, control the ball and take Clever swings to end the game – up off your hands and work the line / edges of the block.
Rowe: Texas has to stay balanced. With so many guns, it’s hard to stop a person. This is the first time Kentucky has stood on this stage so the team needs to be put together. You talked about it “When we are in the national championship” all seasons. Well here they are.
Sunderland: For Kentucky, it has to serve Eggleston every time she’s in the front row. You can’t stop all of the Longhorns weapons, so get your poison. For Texas, they must keep the ball away from Stumler and Gabby Curry and serve Avery Skinner, who got into trouble against Washington.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the tournament to be held in one location. How did that affect the teams? And will it be difficult to go back to the original format next season?
Katie George: Playing in a space with limited capacity minimized the distractions, which is certainly a plus. I think the players miss playing in front of fans and having a home advantage when they’re seeded. I don’t think going back will be difficult, but I recommend all teams for their flexibility and adaptability this season.
Sam Gore: It seems to have benefited the teams that once they arrived in the first and second rounds, they settled in and no longer had to worry about traveling to another location or distracting themselves if they had stayed on campus when they would have been hosts. This gives players more time to rest, relax, be together as a team and focus more on the task at hand. I don’t think going back will be difficult because the other way was the norm. It is an interesting debate now and it has been shown that it is possible to be in one place. The bottom line is what is best for sports? People who are a lot smarter than me will make these decisions.
Rockwell: I don’t think going back to the original format will be difficult. But the one-site format this year was good in the sense that they didn’t have to fly anywhere, go home and fly back. It would have been even more enjoyable if they had the chance to interact with other players they knew through club or US national teams – the best part of the experience, aside from the actual volleyball.
Rowe: It was great from the standpoint of rest and relaxation. The limited fans were loud – thanks to the Nebraska fans for still showing up and appreciating good volleyball.
Sunderland: The single venue was good for the level of play and reduced travel costs and player wear and tear. Going back to the old format won’t be difficult at all – the atmosphere in the first few laps is fantastic.
Make your prediction for the final
[Editor’s note: Reporters for the NCAA finals did not make predictions to maintain objectivity for the match.]
George: It’s going to be a reciprocating, physical match with lots of big kills. I’m looking for a match that stays close and reaches to the wire.
Blood: Because I have so much affection and respect for both programs, I just can’t pick a winner! They are both so similar in talent that I prefer to sit back and watch it unfold. Both teams have the same shot, but it depends on which moment you can handle better.
Sunderland: Texas is on the move and so far wins the serve pass battle. It’s going to be a close final, but I’ll give the Longhorns the edge.