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Volleyball catching fire just in time for tournament

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UK_LSU_vball_43.JPGGetting in was only half the battle, but for the Kentucky volleyball team, making the NCAA Tournament seemed like a long-drawn out war.

A murderous early season schedule and youth plagued the Cats for the better part of the first half of the season, and just climbing back into NCAA Tournament consideration seemed like a huge achievement all by itself.

The Cats (17-13), despite admittedly being on the bubble, heard their names called for the NCAA Tournament for a school-record sixth straight time a few days ago. UK will play Purdue on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in West Lafayette, Ind.

After the type of season it's been, one marked with emotionally-draining ups and downs, it'd be easy for the coaches and players to pat themselves on the back for rallying to win nine of the final 13 matches and make the tourney.

But that would be going against everything head coach Craig Skinner has preached and predicted all season long. At the beginning of the year, without the services of Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Sarah Rumely, outside hitter Sarah Mendoza and libero BriAnne Sauer, the sixth-year UK coach foresaw some bumps in the road.

Skinner was big on the potential of the team, but he knew it'd be a difficult journey to make it back to the tournament despite the Cats' overzealous preseason ranking. Skinner said that if Kentucky could find a way to make it into the tournament, his team would have as good of a chance as anybody.

He was right in several senses.

Kentucky came together down the stretch and played its best volleyball at the end of the year. And while it may be stating the obvious, in a 64-team, one-loss elimination tournament, Kentucky is on even ground with every team left still playing.

"Like I tell our team, there is no one we're going to play that we don't think we can beat," Skinner said. "We feel like we can beat anybody we come up against, but that doesn't guarantee wins. You have to do it when the match is on the line."

Although losses piled up early in the season, a schedule that included 11 teams in this year's NCAA Tournament prepared UK for the one-and-done tournament. It sounds cliché, but this year's team is battle-tested.

"As many good teams as we've played, there aren't many things we haven't seen on the volleyball court from physical outside hitters to teams that block really well to different type of offense," Skinner said. "I think we're prepared. I think we've won against good teams at the end of games and produced when the match is on the line."

Tangibly, Skinner said the difference in the team from the beginning of the year to now lies somewhere with the improved blocking up front and a better serve percentage.

"We just don't make bonehead mistakes nearly as much as we used to," Skinner said. "When you do that, you give momentum to the other team. Those have become a lot less frequent."

But something else may have been behind the midseason turnaround.

"I think we realized how bad we were doing and I think we were all embarrassed," said sophomore Stephanie Klefot, who was tabbed Southeastern Conference Libero of the Year on Monday. "To be honest, it was a pride thing. We wanted to be the Wildcats and live up to our expectations."

During a stretch where the Cats lost four of five, a time in which making the NCAA Tournament was all but out of reach, Skinner told the players to forget about the season to that point and wipe the slate clean.

His message worked.

"I think it's a completely different team than what we had at the beginning of the year," said senior middle blocker Lauren Rapp, who was named first-team All-SEC on Monday. "People struggled with not only physically knowing their role but emotionally and mentally what their role was on the team. There was a bunch of new faces out there with new roles and I think we finally got it clicking and working."

Rapp knows better than anyone that a hot streak can lead a team deep into the tournament. Catching fire at the perfect time last year, Rapp, lost in shadows of a star-laden team, played arguably the best volleyball of her career in leading UK to the Sweet 16.

In the Cats' first-round match against Clemson, Rapp posted a team-high 14 kills. She followed the next night with a career-high 10 blocks against No. 14 overall seed Oregon before tallying a season-high 18 kills a heartbreaking loss to Florida State.

"You never want your season to end," said Rapp, an Indianapolis native who expects a number of family and friends to make the trip to Purdue on Friday for the match. "You just have to keep going. I was lucky enough last year to get going at the right time."

Skinner likes where his team is at heading into the Purdue match.

"Prior to (the Tennessee loss), by winning six prior matches, I felt that we played well," Skinner said. "Some of the matches, especially against Auburn, Ole Miss and LSU, definitely solidified us as an NCAA team. I'm excited with the way we are playing. We actually came in and practiced on Sunday anticipating on being in the tournament and they were very competitive practices, so I think we are playing very well."

Kentucky will clearly be the underdog Friday when it faces Purdue in West Lafayette, but of the seeded teams in each region, UK got the lowest-seeded team. If the Cats can pull of a win in the first round, they'd face the winner of the Middle Tennessee State-Louisville match.

UK defeated Louisville earlier this year. If the Cats can catch fire once again, there's no telling how far they can go.

"I think people would put (Purdue) as a favorite in this match," Skinner said. "I think our team likes that. They have a little chip on their shoulder, but this team has always played loose and for each other and I would expect them to do that (again). I also told them to enjoy the tournament because if you don't it's going to be gone in a hurry."

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