Last weekend the No. 10 Wildcats (28-8) earned yet another emotional victory, this time over archrival Louisville, to set up a rematch with No. 7 Florida (20-8) in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championships on Thursday at 3 p.m. ET in Stanford, Calif. Playing for the chance to advance one step closer to a national title, the stakes are even higher than that last match with Florida. While UK will be looking for a different result, that SEC Championship loss won't be far from the Wildcats' minds.
"That loss sat with a lot of us," senior Brad Cox said. "Getting ready to play Florida, we can look back on that loss and remember how it felt and I think that's going to make us determined to get this win."
In fact, that loss to Florida in Gainesville, Fla., helped fuel the Wildcats' first- and second-round victories over Cleveland State and Louisville, propelling them to their second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
"I think we were all really motivated during that time off losing to Florida," No. 6 ranked junior Eric Quigley said. "That kind of stung having such a great run and losing in the finals. I think we were all really motivated during that time off to work hard to have a good run in the NCAAs since that loss at Florida hurt a little bit."
Following the SEC Tournament, UK had a nearly three-week layoff before opening play in the NCAAs. How the team would respond to that kind of time off was an unknown, but the Wildcats relied on the edge that Florida loss afforded them to hone their focus.
"I was really pleased with the way we played," head coach Dennis Emery said. "I thought we handled the three-week layoff better than any team we've had in the last 10 or 12 years. Our guys were really determined and very focused from a competitive standpoint. Although I thought we were a little rusty physically in our shot selection, I thought the fact that they were so determined really overcame that."
The Wildcats will bring that same determination to the Florida rematch but it is tempered by the confidence the team derives from knowing they are capable of knocking off the Gators. On April 1, Kentucky defeated Florida 4-3 to earn the program's first regular-season win in Gainesville since 1988.
"Both matches were at Florida and we won one of those matches," Cox said. "We're going to take confidence from that win that we got against them, but also take confidence out of the loss that they handed us just because we know how close it was."
There is a great deal of familiarity between these two conference opponents that have already faced off twice this season. Many of the doubles and singles matches that will be played on Thursday have already been played this season, so there won't be many surprises between these two foes.
"We obviously know our matchups pretty well, doubles and singles, since we played them twice already this year and they're in our conference," Quigley said. "I think we're all excited to play them again, but it will be tough."
Neither Emery nor Florida head coach Andy Jackson will be able to throw anything at each other that they haven't already seen, so that means this match will come down purely and simply to the team that plays better when the players hit the court.
"What we know about Florida is that if we win the doubles point we're going to have a great chance of winning the match," Emery said. "The other thing we know about Florida is that they know out personnel really well and they're going to fight really hard. This should be a great match, a match where both teams know each other very well, so I think it will be whoever executes better."
However, there is one important factor that will be different this time around. While both previous matches between the two squads were played in the Gators' backyard, this one will be in Stanford. Even though UK won there this season, Gainesville is a historically difficult place to win, so the change of scenery will be a welcome one.
"We've been very good on the road, but I think you'd have to consider it a big advantage to play at a neutral site for us," Emery said. "We're excited to play them outside of Gainesville."
In the SEC final, UK got off to a good start, but the Florida heat helped cause a late fade by the Wildcats.
"The biggest factor in the match we lost in the SEC final was that we won four first sets and, while we didn't go away in that match, the heat was just so oppressive it was very difficult at that point to finish the deal," Emery said. "The weather out here is a lot cooler, so that will really favor us."
Even though the stage in Stanford is big and UK has a rotation that features a freshman and a sophomore, Kentucky is well prepared. Having won so many close matches this season over tough opponents, the Wildcats are confident in their ability to collectively maintain a steady hand in the face of pressure.
Besides, they already proved they could do it last weekend. It's difficult to imagine an atmosphere more charged than the one that Saturday's UK-U of L match was played in, yet the Wildcats pulled off the victory. Playing in front of an electric, near-capacity crowd, junior Alex Musialek won a third-set victory that clinched the match and touched off a raucous celebration.
"The kind of atmosphere that we had in that match is going to help a lot because you have some of the same crowd sizes and atmospheres here at NCAAs," Cox said. "Our freshmen and the guys who didn't get to play last year at NCAAs got a good understanding of what it's going to be like here."
If the Wildcats can cope with the magnitude of the Sweet 16 and defeat the Gators, the USC Trojans figure to be awaiting them in the Elite Eight. USC happens to be the team that ended UK's season in the Sweet 16 last year, and though UK won't be caught overlooking Florida, the Wildcats can't help but notice a potential theme developing.
"Both Florida and USC are great teams and (USC) has obviously won the NCAAs the last two years so, needless to say, they're a darn good team," Quigley said. "It would be fun to play them again knowing we played them last year in the round of 16 and they got the better of us. I think we have a good chance to get some revenge on some teams."