When 14th-ranked Kentucky plays host to Ole Miss on Saturday afternoon in its regular-season finale, the Wildcats have plenty on the line.
At 22-6 overall and 15-2 in the SEC, they’re tied with No. 15 Florida (24-4, 15-2) atop the league standings. Both are trying to get the best seeds possible for the NCAA Tournament, but are sure bets to be first- and second-round hosts, since Kentucky is No. 7 in the NCAA RPI and Florida No. 9.
Kentucky, which has won seven matches in a row, is coming off a four-set victory Friday at LSU. Ole Miss, once atop the league standings at 6-0, has lost all 11 SEC matches since. Florida has a tough match at third-place Texas A&M, which has a record of 21-6, 13-4 and is No. 13 in the RPI.
It seems like forever ago, but Kentucky once stood at 2-2 this season with losses to now No. 17 Utah and now-No. 10 Creighton. And there are two matches against Big Ten teams the Wildcats would love to have back, a shocking 3-2 home defeat to Indiana followed by another five-set home defeat to Purdue.
But getting into the SEC season cured a lot of woes. UK’s only defeats were, interestingly enough, at home against Georgia in five and in four to A&M. But the Wildcats beat Florida twice, in five at home on October 6 and in five in Gainesville on November 17.
Star senior outside hitter Leah Edmond, a product of Lexington, knows the scenario all too well.
“After the win down at Florida we saw a different side of our team, a different fight, a different level that we can play on,” Edmond said. “Since that game we’ve been really pushing each other to know that we can play like that every time.”
When Edmond was a freshman, Kentucky was ranked No. 24 and played in the NCAA Tournament in Seattle, first beating Colorado State and then losing to Washington to end 23-8.
In 2017, Kentucky went 29-4, 17-1 in the SEC, was ranked No. 6, and won its first two NCAA matches, beating WKU and BYU, before falling at home to eventual national champion Nebraska.
Then last year, when Edmond was named SEC player of the year, the Wildcats rolled through the SEC, going 18-0, and finished 26-5 overall. Kentucky beat Murray State and Purdue at home, but then went to Minnesota for the regional and the season again ended at the hands of Nebraska. Kentucky, ranked No. 10, had won 23 matches in row.
“The past two years I can definitely tell the difference how the first and second rounds went being at home compared to my freshman year when we had to go all the way to Seattle,” Edmond said. “Being on your home court, being around people you already know and staying in a routine you know is really helpful. So I hope we get to host. It’s really special to be at home for the first two rounds.
Wednesday at LSU, the seventh-place Tigers were hitting on all cylinders early and playing some spectacular defense. Ultimately Kentucky won 19-25, 28-26, 25-23, 25-11.
“Our league has gotten so much better from last year,” junior libero Gabby Curry said. “We see people who are going to push us more often.”
Against LSU, sophomore outside Alli Stumler had 16 kills despite hitting .075, and Edmond, who hit .178, had 15 kills to go with an ace, a block and 18 digs.
“In the first set we were kind of freaked out a little bit because they came ready to play and they were digging a whole lot of balls that we’re used to see falling for us,” Edmond admitted.
“It took a lot of resilience and it’s good for us to have a match like this so close to the tournament because once you get to the tournament, everybody’s digging balls, everybody’s blocking balls and they’re going to send what we have right back at us.”
Edmond leads Kentucky with 428 kills (4.37/set), is hitting .303, has 18 aces and averages 2.51 digs per set. Kentucky’s got a pretty strong one-two punch. Alli Stumler had 339 kills (3.36/set) and is second only to Curry (448 digs, 4.48/set) with 248 digs (2.46/set).
Edmond knows teams will be keying on her and Stumler.
“Being able to have other people who can step up is really helpful and keeps other teams on their toes,” Edmond said.
That includes middles Leah Meyer, a graduate-student who transferred from Duke and has 208 kills (2.06/set), is hitting .376, and leads Kentucky in blocks with 120, 10 solo; and junior Kendyl Paris, who has 145 kills, is hitting .331, and has 81 blocks.
It gives junior setter Madison Lilley, who is averaging 11.43 assists per set, a lot of options.
“We do all the fundamental things well that you want a team to give yourselves a chance in every match,” coach Craig Skinner said. “We serve well, we ballhandle well, we play good defense. If you do all three of those things well you’ve got a chance against everybody.
“And we have two left sides who can put the ball away. And not many things faze this group. I’s a pretty tough group mentally.”
Edmond thinks Kentucky is certainly ready for the postseason. The program has been to the NCAA Tournament 14 years in a row.
“There’s a fight that I haven’t seen before in this team and a want to constantly get better,” Edmond said. “We’re constantly pushing each other and there’s constant competition to be the best at every position.”