With a 23-20 lead and a chance to take a commanding two-set lead in the second game, the Lady Volunteers rallied to win 26-24 and end any notion of a quick night of work for the Wildcats. They could have packed it in then, but instead they rallied to win the third set. The Cats could have quit after the Lady Vols saved a match point to force a decisive fifth set, but they didn't.
In the end, the Cats overcame, ending the Lady Vols' 11-match winning streak and vaulting themselves into a tie for the Southeastern Conference lead in the process. It's difficult to imagine two teams more evenly matched than the two that took the court in front of a raucous crowd in Memorial Coliseum, but it was defense that ultimately made the difference.
"Statistically, you're looking at it before the match and you're thinking, 'this is going to be a great match' and it was," head coach Craig Skinner said. "Defense is what made a big difference for us."
Looking at the statistics posted by the two teams, it's nearly impossible to pick out any notable differences. UK and UT posted identical hitting percentages of .164; UK held a slim 65-63 advantage in kills; and UT had 60 assists to UK's 59.
Skinner is absolutely right in pointing to defense as the difference-maker. The Cats had 77 digs, nine more than Tennessee, and posted eight crucial service aces. Defense, more often than not, comes down to effort and determination. In that department, UK had a distinct advantage. With nearly 2,000 white-clad UK fans packing Memorial, Skinner's team had an inspiration to go after every loose ball, to respond in the face of adversity.
At no point did the crowd makes its presence known more than right before UK tallied match point. The Cats had just faced their latest bit of disappointment, losing a dramatic point to make the score 14-13. It was then that the crowd chimed in with a deafening chant of "Go Big Blue".
"I got goose bumps at point 14 when we were up 14-13 and the 'Go Big Blue' chant started," Skinner said. "That was pretty impressive."
From the crowd, the Cats received a boost that altered the course of the game.
"When your crowd does that and gives you that kind of confidence and momentum, it makes a major difference," Skinner said. "I think it changed the outlook of our team. Our team could have very easily gone the other way at the end of game four and we put it on in game five and came through. The crowd was a major part of that."
Senior Becky Pavan, who led UK with 16 killls, has trouble recalling anytime when the home crowd has so impacted a match.
"It was very amazing. It's been a long time since we've had such an excitable crowd," Pavan said. "They really participated in the White Out and they were just pumping energy into the team. It really helped us keep our energy up and really helped us to the win."
Though UK is just nine games into a 20-game SEC slate, the win over Tennessee served notice the Wildcats are a force to be reckoned with in the race for the conference title. The three teams atop the SEC's Eastern Division, UK, UT and Florida, each have one loss. UK will play both Tennessee and Florida one more time this season, including a trip to Knoxville, Tenn. Pavan expects the sort of even match fans saw on Wednesday to be duplicated anytime the Cats and Lady Vols face off.
"They have a lot of good players and we have a lot of talent on our team too so I think every matchup we're going to have against them is always going to be a close game," Pavan said.
However, UK won't make that trip until the final match of the regular season so the attention of the team is squarely focused on the next task at hand: a road match against Mississippi State on Friday.
"The most important thing for us now is getting focused on Mississippi State because it's a long season," Skinner said. "We're going to have to be ready to go."