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Volleyball makes presence known in SEC race with upset of No. 13 Florida

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Whitney Billings had 17 kills in UK's 3-2 win over No. 13 Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Whitney Billings had 17 kills in UK's 3-2 win over No. 13 Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Midway through the fifth set, there was no separating Kentucky and Florida. The No. 24 Wildcats and No. 13 Gators had played to a near standstill, with the two teams splitting the first four sets and tied 7-7 in the decisive fifth.

It was then the Cats found a gear they didn't even know they had.

UK would go on to win eight of the match's final 10 points in route to a dramatic 3-2 (25-23, 19-25, 25-21, 17-25, 15-9) win over Florida. Knowing they needed a win to keep pace in a crowded race atop the Southeastern Conference, the Wildcats exerted their will on a team that had beaten them just a month ago.

"You get to that point in the game and you're so close you can taste it," senior middle blocker Becky Pavan said. "We made the switch to full out effort. We knew we were going to win at that point. They were on their heels and they felt our presence and we knew it."

Florida is a team that has been at the top of the heap in the SEC ever since head coach Craig Skinner arrived at UK seven years ago. He has carried the program to new heights during that time, but attributed the big win to no one else but his players.

"I have to give this one to the players," said Skinner. "They willed this win, they competed, they bent a little bit but didn't break. They trusted themselves the whole time and trusted each other and that's what you have to do to win tough matches against great teams."

All season, the Wildcats (21-4, 11-2 SEC) have been an enthusiastic group on the floor, but the exuberance went to another level during the decisive run. Sensing victory, players on the floor and the bench were jumping around and the crowd responded in a big way. That feeling doesn't figure to fade anytime in the immediate future.

"It was really exciting," said junior libero Stephanie Klefot, who led all players with 25 digs on the match. "I'm smiling ear to ear and I probably won't be able to sleep tonight."

It was clear UK had a full understanding of the importance of this match. The win puts the Cats 1.5 games ahead of Florida and just a game behind Tennessee. With six matches remaining in the conference season, including one against the Lady Volunteers, UK is exactly where it wants to be: in control of its own destiny.

"If we didn't win this match, it would have been a heck of a time trying to win the conference," said Skinner. "We would have had to rely on other people. Now we control what we do. That's not easy, but you want to be in that position versus relying on other people to stumble."

Pacing the Wildcats' attack were Whitney Billings and Ashley Frazier. The pair totaled 33 kills with each hitting at well over a .300 clip against a staunch Florida defense. UK has relied on a balanced offense during its current run of 18 wins in 20 matches, but the Gators fought against that balance as well as any opponent has all season. UK hit just .227 as a team and Florida was the reason why.

"They scheme a lot," Skinner said. "They put two blockers where they think the ball is going quite a bit and we knew that."

Early in the match, the Cats seemed to forget it though. At one point in the first set, the Gators had three consecutive blocks as they charged to a 9-5 lead. Skinner recognized he needed to call for time to compose his team.

"We got a little amped up too much at the beginning of set one and started trying to hit the ball too hard and in the wrong places," Skinner said. "You can't do that against Florida."

His message during the 90-second break was simple.

"We just couldn't hit it into the block," Skinner said. "It's a giant block. Florida is really long at the net and if you pull the ball down, you're going to get blocked. They had to hit to the deep third of the court and if we did, we had a chance to score."

From that point forward, UK used a combination of deeply hit and touch attacks and came back to win the first set and the match. The Cats may not have had four players reach double digit kills as they've had so many times this season, but setter Christine Hartmann still orchestrated an effective UK attack with 38 assists.

More than that, she picked her spots well and participated in attack too. She added six kills of her own at a .400 hitting clip, taking advantage of the schemes Florida used to limit UK's powerful hitters. She also had 10 digs, marking her third double-double in six matches.

The Cats will certainly take the opportunity to stop and enjoy this win, but they also won't lose sight of what's ahead. First up is a home match against Mississippi State, who defeated UK just two weeks ago, on Friday. Beating a top-15 team and SEC contender will get a lot of attention, but every game from this point forward is equally important to the team's ultimate goal.

"Every game in the SEC is important," Pavan said. "This one is just as important as any other game. Each game toward winning the SEC championship. If we want to win, we need to win the rest of the games we play."

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