The No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats (10-0) swept the Arkansas Razorbacks volleyball team (6-4) twice in a show of Southeastern Conference superiority at Barnhill Arena on Friday and Saturday.
A pattern seemed to emerge in Arkansas’ first two games of the season. The first game (25-15, 25-16, 25-22) saw Arkansas blown out in the first and second sets by undefeated Kentucky. Arkansas never saw a lead until the third set.
“We gave ourselves an opportunity in the third set by playing simple and clean,” Arkansas head coach Jason Watson said in an email. “That’s key for us — the need to be simple and clean longer. Kentucky is playing volleyball at a high level and will make you pay if you aren’t clean.”
Arkansas clung to an early lead in the third set Friday night. The Hogs led by as much as 15-11 before Kentucky quickly pulled ahead to 17-16. A back-and-forth affair emerged as the two teams constantly swapped leads, but Kentucky eventually passed Arkansas 23-22 and never looked back. Kentucky did not come close to losing again until the 3rd set of the next day’s game.
In game one, a .492 attack percentage from Kentucky eclipsed a dismal .120 from Arkansas.
Razorback standouts included outside hitters and sophomores Jillian Gillen and Maggie Cartwright, who managed eight kills each. Setter Gracie Ryan, a junior, recorded a team-high 23 assists. Outside hitter Taylor Head, a freshman, led all players with seven digs.
Kentucky outside hitter Alli Stumler, a junior, had a well-rounded performance with a game-high 12 kills, two blocks, four digs and two assists. Other notable Wildcats were outside hitters and sisters Madison, a freshman, and Avery Skinner, a senior, who managed nine and eight kills, respectively. Additionally, Madison and middle blocker Elise Goetzinger, a freshman, each tallied five blocks. Azhani Tealer, a sophomore, had eight kills and four blocks.
The second game (25-15, 25-14, 26-24) consisted of similar losses in the first two sets, before the Razorbacks ultimately fell to the Wildcats in what was their third and closest set.
Arkansas looked again as though it caught a second wind early on, leading by as much as 16-12. Kentucky and Arkansas proceeded to take turns trailing one another. Arkansas forced the Wildcats into using their only time out of the game when it scored three points in a row, tying the final set 22-22. Despite a much better game from the Razorbacks, Kentucky pulled away in the final serves and won 26-24.
In game two, Arkansas’ attack percentage dropped to .073, but the underdog Hogs adjusted to the Wildcats offense, holding them to a much improved .265.
“The second night we put better serving pressure on them and got our defense slightly better aligned with their tendencies,” Watson said.
Strong competitors for Arkansas included Gillen and Cartwright, who tied each other again with a team-high 9 kills. Head and defensive specialist Lauren Evans, a junior, had a team-high 10 digs, and Ryan assisted on 25 kills while racking up 9 digs of her own.
Among Kentucky’s best performers were Avery Skinner with a game-high 17 kills and Stumler with a game-high 16 digs. Setter Madison Lilley, a senior, racked up 5 blocks, 8 digs, and a game-high 36 assists.
Arkansas will face off against Georgia (4-4) in Athens, Georgia, on Feb. 4-5. Both games will be broadcast on the SEC+ Network.
Despite a rough outing for the Razorbacks, Watson does not think their performance against Kentucky was indicative of their true strength as a team, she said.
“Our offense was reflective of how well we passed,” Watson said. “I really felt we passed well enough to run a much more effective offense than we accomplished over the weekend. That will be a big part of our preparation for the series at Georgia.”