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Natalie Hayward (2) sets Ava Bell(20) in the middle resulting in a kill in Thompson-Boling Arena on September 5th, 2021.

The No. 21 Tennessee volleyball team suffered its second consecutive loss Wednesday night, falling to No. 5 Kentucky in three sets (17-25, 19-25, 19-25). The loss is the first time the Lady Vols have dropped back-to-back games this season and just the second time the team has been swept. 

“We’re not passing the ball well enough, we’re not executing on offense well enough and our block defense hasn’t been as good as it used to be,” head coach Eve Rackham-Watt said. “I trust our team and I know they’re invested and they want to be good. We’re going to get back to practice and we got a week to figure out how to get better.” 

Tennessee’s (16-5, 8-3 SEC) quick three-set shutout was played in front of a packed Thompson-Boling Arena with a record 3,376 people in attendance. The crowd, however, did not phase the Wildcats (16-3, 9-0 SEC) as they made quick work of the Lady Vols. 

In the first set, the Lady Vols fell behind early thanks to Kentucky’s star senior outside hitter Alli Stumler. She was able to put up quick kills to give the Wildcats a 6-3 lead going into the first timeout. Coming out of the timeout, Lady Vols right side hitter Morgan Fingall was able to come up with clutch kills to keep the Lady Vols in the game. 

Kentucky simply didn’t let up and would continue to score without much resistance. In the final minutes of the set, the Wildcats had an 11 point lead over the Lady Vols. Kentucky was near unstoppable with a .429 hitting percentage compared to Tennessee’s .257. Kentucky took a commanding 1-0 lead over the Vols, winning 25-17. 

At the beginning of set two, both teams furiously fought to get an early lead. For the Lady Vols right side hitter Fingall and middle blocker Danielle Mahaffey were able to put Tennessee on the board. The Lady Vols would even lead the Wildcats for the first time of the night off of back-to-back kills from Breanna Runnels. 

Unfortunately for the Big Orange, the Wildcats would storm back to take the lead. Set two had various Tennessee errors and the team ended the set with 5 attack errors and 3 services errors. The Kentucky offense proved too strong, as it won set two 25-19. 

Tennessee quickly found itself down two sets. Facing defeat, the team was able to jump out to a hard-fought lead. The Wildcats responded with a kill from outside hitter Erin Lamb and a service ace by libero Riah Walker.  Kentucky retook the lead and held on to it for the entire set. Despite a late Tennessee surge, Kentucky won set three 25-19 to complete the sweep.

The Lady Vols had difficulty finding an answer to the Wildcats lights-out offense. Senior Lily Felts, one of Tennessee’s best outside hitters, was limited to just 5 kills. Fingall (12) and Runnels (11) were the only Lady Vols to record double-digit kills. Errors plagued the Lady Vols with 14 attack errors, 3 service errors and 1 block error. 

“Our team plays hard,” Rackham-Watt said after the match. “Every time you lose — you learn more than you do when win. You hate to lose  you get exposed and that teaches you about yourself. It gives the team an incentive to get back to the gym.” 

Tennessee looks to bounce back from the crushing defeat next Thursday on the road against Florida. The team will have more than a week to regroup and make adjustments to finish the season off strong. 

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