Arkansas-Kentucky Round 3 in NCAA's Sweet 16

Jill Gillen (10) of Arkansas celebrates with teammates during an NCAA Tournament match against TCU on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Fayetteville.

The University of Arkansas volleyball team is making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals since 1998, but the Razorbacks will face a familiar opponent tonight at the Bob Devaney Center in Lincoln, Neb.

Arkansas (27-5) will take on SEC foe Kentucky (21-7) in a match slated to begin at 3:30 p.m. Central and will be televised on ESPNU. The Wildcats won both meetings with the Razorbacks this season. Kentucky won in five sets at home, then swept Arkansas at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville later in the season.

Jill Gillen, a 5-7 senior, said getting to the second weekend of the tournament means “quite a bit” to the group.

“All the people who are in this program and playing together right now have bought into what this program could be and to get back on track and we’ve done that,” Gillen said. “So it’s really exciting to be back here and represent the Hogs.”

The Razorbacks finished 11-19 overall and 5-13 in the SEC in Gillen’s freshman year. This season’s 27 wins match Arkansas’ most since 2003.

Arkansas Coach Jason Watson said his team is just excited to keep playing.

“I feel like we’re coming off a nice weekend at home in Barnhill,” Watson said. “We’re certainly excited to play more volleyball. That’s what our team loves to do is play volleyball and we get to do it.

“We get to play Kentucky for the third time. I think we’re well-versed in what they’re doing and they’re well-versed in us. So it’s a challenging matchup for us, but we’re excited.”

Gillen said toward the second half of the season the Razorbacks began to believe making it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament was a real possibility.

“So when we found out we got to host, it was like, ‘We’re going to get to the second weekend,’” Gillen said. “We knew we had a really good shot and we did it and we took care of business. So it’s very exciting.”

Watson said Kentucky’s senior right-side hitter Reagan Rutherford poses quite a challenge, and the SEC champion Wildcats have gotten better as the season has progressed. They are riding an 18-match winning streak.

“Rutherford’s the real deal,” Watson said. “She poses an enormous threat. They like setting that right side quite a bit. One of the things that has significantly improved over the course of the season is their first-ball contact. I think they’re passing a lot better than they were first time we saw them, and defensively they are creating opportunities where they can counter attack with tempo, which wasn’t the case early in the season.”

Arkansas has enjoyed outstanding crowd support this season, which he attributes to this core group of players.

“Nebraska is the attendance leader in the country, but we’re seeing attendance go up all across the country and so that’s happening in Fayetteville,” Watson said. “And that doesn’t happen in Fayetteville without this core group of athletes that we have.”

But by comparison, Arkansas will be playing before significantly larger crowds in Lincoln, Neb.

Nebraska drew over 8,500 for each match last weekend, while Arkansas drew 7,404 combined for its past two matches. Those last two matches ranked as the second- and third-largest crowds in program history.

Watson credits this group with carrying the program forward.

“We laugh, when they started it was only parents and boyfriends that turned out to matches, and now it’s evolved that there’s more than that,” Watson said. “And so Arkansas’ probably not known as a volleyball hotbed, but they are inspiring local athletes within the state of Arkansas to excel in a sport that perhaps is very young.

“Volleyball didn’t start at Arkansas until ’94, so it hasn’t had a long history on our campus. It all happens within. It all happens with this group.”

But he says the group have been resilient working through a tough latter part of the SEC schedule, including five straight on the road.

“I’m proud of them for coming out on the back side,” Watson said. “Second place in the SEC and a top 16 seed, that’s a pretty cool story.”