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Volleyball fearless entering match with tournament's top seed

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Kentucky volleyball takes on No. 1 overall seed Texas in the Sweet 16 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum. (Patrick Murphy Racey, UK Athletics) Kentucky volleyball takes on No. 1 overall seed Texas in the Sweet 16 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum. (Patrick Murphy Racey, UK Athletics)
All season long, the Kentucky volleyball team sensed something special in itself.

The Wildcats battled back from a trying 2-2 start to the 2011 campaign to win match after match and establish themselves as contenders for a conference title. There was one obstacle left to overcome though.

The final hurdle wasn't a highly-ranked opponent or a tough road environment. It wasn't an injury to a key player or some team chemistry issue.

Against Arkansas on Nov. 20, the Cats fell behind by two sets before winning the final three. On that day, UK learned one last lesson.

"We talked after the Arkansas game, when we went five and won on senior night," senior outside hitter Ann Armes said. "I told them how proud I was of them and I knew from that point on that we have nothing to fear."

Whether the lesson had really sunk in was immediately tested.

Armes and company could have been afraid when they found out they would have to hit the road for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament just a week later. They could have been afraid when their tournament lives were on the line down two sets to one against Dayton. They could have been afraid when they had to face Texas A&M on its home floor with a berth in the Sweet 16 up for grabs.

They never wavered.

Craig Skinner's team passed every test applied to their new fearless approach in the NCAA Tournament's first two rounds. The reward: a match against No. 1 overall seed Texas at 7 p.m. on Friday in Memorial Coliseum.

But with everything they've been through, the Wildcats aren't about to wilt now.

"If we can come back from that and all the things that we've been able to do in the past, we have nothing to fear," Armes said. "Fear comes from an external source. We shouldn't fear Texas, we shouldn't fear Ole Miss, we shouldn't fear Arkansas."

There's no doubt Kentucky will have to play well to knock off the Longhorns, even with a raucous home crowd behind them. There's also no doubt in the minds of the players and coaches that they're capable of doing just that.

"Outside of our travel group of twenty-four, there are very few people that think Kentucky will beat Texas," Skinner said. "I know (Texas head) coach (Jerritt) Elliott's been around long enough and he respects what we have to do and we respect Texas. Everyone's got to play well."

The Wildcats also happen to have the full attention of the Longhorns, especially their coach.

"I think Kentucky is one the most balanced teams we have played all year long," Elliott said. "They may have the best balance of any team that we have played. They also have exceptional ball control, and are probably the best passing team that we have played all season."

That balance and ball control will be sternly tested by a Texas offense ranked fifth in the nation with a hitting percentage of .286 and a set of blockers averaging 2.81 per set (10th nationally). Sophomore Bailey Webster leads the way with 2.82 kills per set at a .339 clip and earned Big 12 Player of the Year honors.

Like the Cats, Texas struggled out of the gate, losing three of its first five matches before winning 22 of 23, including the last 16 in a row.

"All year long we have been preaching patience and getting better," Elliott said. "I knew that they would be at this point later in the year. I knew that there was some urgency on their faces early, but I wanted them to get back in the gym and learn what we were doing to get confident in our system and be disciplined."

So, what will it take it take to beat the top-seeded team in the bracket? According to Skinner, the Cats will rely on a combination of factors, ranging from the close-knit nature of his team to simply doing the little things to the Memorial crowd.

"We call it small ball, being able to do the little things and keep the ball off the floor," Skinner said. "We play hard and with great effort. We also play pretty physical. We have a lot of people that can play high above the net. I think the combination, the way we go about things, how hard we want to play, and the intangible aspect of the crowd and your home environment. We have to play into that. We have everything to gain by playing in this regional."

The regional has been a long time coming. UK earned the right to host in Jan. 2010 and the Cats saw the bid itself as an investment into what Skinner and the players were building. In turn, the team saw that commitment as further motivation.

"That support and that amount of responsibility didn't go unnoticed," Pavan said. "It meant a lot of us to know that (Athletics Director) Mitch Barnhart and everyone in administration thought that we would be able to get here and play at home in the Sweet Sixteen."

That investment could not have paid off any more than it has. Not only did the Wildcats earn the right to play at home by playing well all season and in the tournament, but the overall quality of teams playing this weekend in Lexington is more befitting of a Final Four than a regional.

"We know it's going to be a very challenging regional, I personally feel it's the toughest regional in all the four brackets," Elliott said. "I think a good team is going to come out of here."

Texas, No. 8 seed Penn State and No. 9 seed UCLA have all been ranked No. 1 in the country at some point during the season. The three teams have combined to win nine national championships between them and the level of volleyball that is expected to be played in Memorial can only help in the development of Lexington and Kentucky as burgeoning volleyball hotspots.

"It's really a stage for the people in this area that haven't been associated with volleyball to understand this is big-time stuff," Skinner said. "I think when you see that type of athleticism, you see that type of competition it inspires younger players that maybe playing different sports to try out volleyball. The ticket sales are going unbelievable and to me that's a great credit to our administration to really put a lot of emphasis and effort to make volleyball a sport that means something here."

As much as the high level of competition could inspire young athletes to get involved in volleyball, it also makes it pretty tough on the four teams looking to win the regional and advance to the Final Four. Skinner, though, believes winning difficult matches is what it's all about at this stage of the season.

Like his team, he's not afraid.

"Every regional is hard," Skinner said. "You can talk about seeding, you can talk about records, I mean when you get to this point everybody is good and you have to bring you're 'A' game. When you get to regionals you have to expect great competition. I know we have a tough match, and UCLA vs. Penn State is a tough match. You look at all the other regionals and they all have their own set of problems, and it's about making the most of it. Everyone has a lot to gain and nothing to lose."

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