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Valiant effort comes up short, but UK volleyball isn't going anywhere

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More than 4,000 fans watched in Memorial Coliseum as UK lost 3-1 to No. 1 Texas in the Sweet 16. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) More than 4,000 fans watched in Memorial Coliseum as UK lost 3-1 to No. 1 Texas in the Sweet 16. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
With Texas next on the schedule, a solid season was supposed to end unceremoniously for Kentucky volleyball in the Sweet 16. The top-seeded Longhorns were expected to dispatch the upstart Wildcats rather easily on Friday night, even though the match was to be played on UK's home floor.

With the tradition and storied history of their opponents, Craig Skinner's team was supposed to be happy with a trip to a regional semifinal and the Longhorns would continue their bid for a third national championship.

Well, it turns out Texas will indeed move on, but the Wildcats had no intention of sticking to that script.

Instead, UK fought tooth-and-nail with a powerful opponent in a highly competitive match that left the 4,022 fans in attendance in Memorial Coliseum begging for more volleyball. In the process, the Cats asserted rather forcefully that they are more than worthy of the NCAA Tournament stage and that they have every intention of returning to it in the very near future.

"We just gained a lot of respect from that game," junior libero Stephanie Klefot said. "Not only Kentucky volleyball, but the SEC is hopefully going to be looked at more after this tournament. Especially us, no one expected us to even give Texas a run for their money and we did."

The scoreboard read three sets to one in favor of Texas when all was said and done, but anyone who watched the match understands just how evenly matched the two teams that took the floor were. Each of the three sets the Longhorns won came by just two points and nearly every statistical category was a wash. Texas, the nation's fifth-ranked offense, outhit UK just .308-.279 while the Cats held a 9-8 edge in blocking.

Both the beauty and the tragedy of tournament play is that only one team goes home happy after the last ball is served. Texas certainly has as good a chance as any to be that team, while Kentucky is left heartbroken having poured every ounce of themselves into the season, the match and really every point contested against the Longhorns. Even so, the Wildcats headed to their locker room with their heads held high even though their cheeks were streaked with tears.

"I think we earned a lot of respect from people," junior outside hitter Ashley Frazier said. "I don't think that people expected much of us coming into the game. The fact that we were there with them point-for-point the entire game speaks to how good both teams are. I'm so proud of our team for the way we played and if we had to go out, I guess this is the way I would want it to be. We played our hearts out."

Kentucky was the sixth team ranked in the top 25 of the AVCA Coaches Poll at the end of the season that Texas has faced. In perhaps the clearest proof of just how much respect the Wildcats garnered with their performance tonight, Longhorns head coach Jerritt Elliott didn't hesitate when he compared UK to the other teams on their schedule.

"This was an amazing match," Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said. "This was the best team that we faced all year. I thought they were the most consistent team. They never let us off the hook and there weren't a lot of runs."

The largest lead either team held in any set was a six-point Texas cushion in the third set. Even in that instance when the Cats trailed 17-11, UK came back. Kentucky saved four set points before eventually succumbing, 27-25.

Most experts likely thought it would take a subpar effort from the Longhorns for UK to keep the match as tight as it was, but on the contrary, Texas played exceptionally well. UT needed a few breaks and points to go their way at the end of each of three sets it won to get by the unrelenting Wildcats.

"I think that both teams played great," Texas freshman outside hitter Haley Eckerman said. "There were so many plays where the ball could have been down, but Kentucky was digging it up and we were fighting after balls. It was just a great, fun game to play in. I think we did a really good job of sticking together in this crazy environment."

In preparing for Texas, Skinner knew just how gifted of a team he was going up against, but he didn't foresee the kind of defense the Longhorns played all night. Klefot (21 digs) and the Kentucky defense (51 team digs) played a fantastic game, but the 58 kills Texas came up with made the Wildcats feel like they had to make two kills just to win a single point.

"The one thing I did not expect tonight was Texas to play the floor defense they did tonight, we hit some rockets and they came up with them and that was probably the difference in the match," Skinner said.

UK, though, was undeterred by Texas' defensive effort.

"That's something we see in practice every day," junior setter Christine Hartmann said. "We weren't expecting it, but it is something that we could hang with. It wasn't going to stop us, it wasn't going to take us down by 10 points in the game, it was never going to get that bad."

The Wildcats' hitters simply kept coming and managed a combined 62 kills. Frazier (16 kills), freshman outside hitter Lauren O'Conner (12), senior middle blocker Becky Pavan (12) and senior middle blocker (11) led the UK attack and all hit at a clip of at least .306.

"You have to give a lot of credit to our hitters because they kept swinging and they didn't stop," Klefot said. "Any team could have folded at that point where they keep digging the ball. The hitters kept after it and we wouldn't have done so well without them in this game."

UK also very easily could have folded after dropping that crushing third set. After all the effort the Cats had expended to save four set points, losing the game 27-25 could have easily broken a weaker team. Kentucky, though, kept battling in an equally hard-fought fourth.

"There's no way this team was going to give up, absolutely no way," Skinner said. "They are so tough and resilient. As an athlete, you need to be in the moment and there is no team that has done that better than this group. They were so focused and intent on winning this particular point that I wasn't worried how we'd respond after the third set. We had to make more plays than Texas and we just fell a little short."

An emotional Skinner had trouble coming to grips with the fact that he wouldn't get to coach a team he enjoyed so much because of their dedication and selflessness, but the memories he'll keep from this season don't figure to fade.

"I want to thank my team and staff, it's a hell of a group," Skinner said. "I think the hardest part is being in the locker room after your last loss, especially when you have a group like this that has huge hearts and huge ability. None of us wanted the season to end."

The 2011 season may be ending, but the future that lays ahead for Kentucky volleyball is bright and it doesn't take someone involved in the program to see that.

"It was a heavyweight fight," Elliott said. "Craig Skinner has done an amazing job here. We've been friends for a long time and he was one of the great assistants at Nebraska when they made their great runs and I knew he would build this program to be a contender and tonight showed how well disciplined they were and their fight."

UK may not have come away with a victory on this night, but the passion the fans showed in supporting their team and the quality of volleyball played in Memorial were two steps in the right direction that could set the stage for plenty of victorious nights in the future.

"I think that's about as high a level of volleyball as you can play," Skinner said. "If you aren't excited to play in front of a crowd like that and with a group that puts their heart and soul into the game then I'd be stunned. We're on the right path and we have to continue to take steps forward and this team is so motivated that I'm not worried that won't happen."

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