No. 4 Texas (27-1) will face No. 2 Kentucky (23-1) in the NCAA women’s volleyball championship match Saturday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 8 p.m. ET).
The Wildcats advanced to their first final with a four-set victory against Washington in the first semifinal, while the Longhorns will make their seventh finals appearance and first since 2016 after their win versus Wisconsin.
Which team has the advantage? Who are the players to watch? ESPN’s volleyball gurus break down the matchup.
Who are the players to watch for each team?
Katie George (ESPN analyst, former Louisville star setter): The match will certainly come down to the setters, whose distribution will be key, and setting who and when will be equally important. So, I’ll be keeping an eye on Texas’ Logan Eggleston and Kentucky’s Alli Stumler, who both have proven they can take over a match when needed. They will each need to have incredible performances to lift their teams. Eggleston, the Big 12 player of the year, has wowed and had 17 kills against Wisconsin. Stumler was very efficient against Washington (13 kills, 2 errors to hit .344), but needs 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 have (each had four players with double digits in kills in the semis), success begins with which setter makes the best decisions. Lilley and Jhenna Gabriel have a lot of attackers to choose from. The setter who navigates who to pass to, and when, will give their team an advantage.
Salima Rockwell (ESPN analyst, former Penn State and U.S. national team setter): Kentucky’s Lilley needs to make this offense go, as they want to get out to a strong start after the Wildcats dropped their first set of the tournament against Washington in the semis. For Texas, Skylar Fields has been so good (12 kills and two digs in the semis) and needs to be again on Saturday.
Holly Rowe (ESPN reporter): I am also sticking with the setters. Lilley, the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association national player of the year, continues to do it all for Kentucky: serving, setting and saves. She is the engine that makes Kentucky so efficient. For Texas, watch out for Gabriel. According to Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott, Gabriel is the “spirit” of the team, as her encouragement, play and putting others in position to succeed, is contagious.
Paul Sunderland (ESPN analyst, Olympic gold-medal winner): This is a tough one because both teams have so many weapons. For Texas, Gabriel has been a remarkable upgrade and gives the Longhorns an offensive advantage given their long list of hitters. For the Wildcats, I’m going out a limb here a little, but libero Gabby Curry will be key. If she can keep Kentucky in system with her receiving, the Wildcats have a great chance against Texas.
You are coaching Kentucky or Texas. What is your strategy for each team?
Texas takes down Wisconsin in straight sets to secure its spot in the national championship.
George: Texas needs to continue to apply pressure from the service line, like we’ve seen them do throughout the NCAA tournament. Yes, they miss a few per set, but they attack their opponents’ passers, forcing the offense out of system. Washington strung together a few runs when they forced Kentucky out of system and Lilley was on the run, bump-setting many balls. Kentucky hitters struggled for a short time when Lilley couldn’t run her offense effectively.
Kentucky, meanwhile, needs to be disciplined at the net. The first line of defense is the block. The Wildcats are a physical team with good size — they’ll have their hands full with the variety of capable hitters Texas runs each play. Kentucky needs to have patience, good eye work and disciplined hands to slow down attacks. If the block can get touches to help the backcourt defense behind them, Kentucky can succeed in transition, but first have to keep the ball off the floor to be able to do so. Defense (blocking and digging) will be key for the Cats.
Gore: It’s the same strategy for both teams — get the other team out of system. And the one who does it best, wins. Both teams are so similar in their strengths, but the one who can disrupt the other with excellent serving and passing can impose themselves on the other and take home the title.
Rockwell: For Texas, it needs to make it difficult for Kentucky to be in rhythm — make the Wildcats’ outsides work by serving the ball deep and flat at them and attacking them in the backcourt defensively by getting them on the floor. The Longhorns should also attack the right side of the court so Lilley has to play the first ball — she makes Kentucky go and keeps it in system. For the Kentucky, it needs to control the first contact and beat the Texas block with speed. Be patient and win the long rallies, control the ball and take smart swings to finish the play — high off hands and work the line/edges of the block.
Rowe: Texas must stay balanced. With so many weapons, it’s hard to stop any one person. This is the first time Kentucky has been on this stage, so the team needs to be composed. They have talked about “When we are in the national championship” all season. 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 the Longhorns’ weapons, so pick your poison. For Texas, they need to keep the ball off of Stumler and Gabby Curry and serve Avery Skinner, who got in some trouble against Washington.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the tournament to be staged in one location. How has this impacted teams? And will it be difficult to return to the original format next season?
Katie George: Playing at one venue with limited capacity has minimized distractions, which is certainly beneficial. I think players miss playing in front of fans and having home-court advantage, if seeded. I don’t think it’ll be difficult to go back, but I commend all teams for their flexibility and adaptability this season.
Sam Gore: It seems to have benefited the teams in that, once they arrived for the first and second rounds, they could settle in and not have to worry about traveling to another site or the distractions that come from remaining on campus if they would’ve hosted. This gives players more time to rest, recover, be together as a team and focus more intently on the task at hand. I don’t think it will be difficult to go back, because the other way was the norm. It’s an interesting debate now, and it’s been shown that being in one venue is possible. The bottom line is, what is best for the sport? People who are a lot smarter than me will make those decisions.
Rockwell: I don’t think it will be difficult to go back to the original format. But the one-site format this year has been good in the sense that they didn’t have to fly somewhere, go home and fly back. It would have been even more enjoyable had they had the opportunity to socialize with other players they knew through club or U.S. national teams — the best part of the experience aside from the actual volleyball.
Rowe: It’s been great from a rest and recovery standpoint. The limited fans have been loud — a shout-out to Nebraska fans for still showing up and appreciating good volleyball.
Sunderland: The single venue has been good for the level of play and reducing travel and wear-and-tear on the players. It won’t at all be difficult to go back to the old format — the atmosphere in the early rounds is awesome.
Make your finals prediction
[Editor’s note: Reporters for the NCAA finals did not make predictions to maintain objectivity for the match.]
George: It will be a back-and-forth, physical match with a lot of big-time kills. I root for a match that stays close and goes down to the wire.
Gore: Because I have so much affection and respect for both programs, I just can’t pick a winner! They are both so similar in their talent, I prefer to sit back and watch it unfold. Both teams have an equal shot, but it will come down to which one better handles the moment.
Sunderland: Texas is on a roll, and is so far winning the serve-pass battle. It will a close-played final, but I give the Longhorns the edge.