The 2011 season for Kentucky volleyball has been a lesson in resilience. Countless times throughout the year the Wildcats have had their backs against the wall with no apparent way out. More often than not, they managed to find a way to win.
The question, though, was whether things would be different in the NCAA Tournament. Would the added pressure of having their season on the line every match affect the Cats?
Perhaps not so surprisingly, UK didn't wait long to uncover the answer. Down two sets to one against the Dayton Flyers in the first round of the tournament, Kentucky rallied to win the final two games in maintaining a perfect 7-0 record in five-set affairs.
"Well, the worst part about that match is someone had to lose," head coach Craig Skinner said. "That's a really good volleyball match. Obviously I'm proud of our players for competing. We had our backs against the wall, and really got out and competed out for a while, and they found a way to grind it out get the win."
With the win, UK (27-5) advances to the second round for a match against home standing and No. 16 overall seed Texas A&M (23-7). The Aggies defeated Lipscomb 3-1 on Thursday to increase their perfect mark in home NCAA matches to 15-0. Dayton (25-7), meanwhile, heads back to Ohio in heartbreaking fashion even though the Flyers mounted a stern challenge.
"I think it was two teams that were fighting for their lives out there," Dayton head coach Kelly Sheffield said. "Just battling, trying to keep balls off the floor. I didn't think either team, when it got right down to it, batted an eye. Both teams were trying to go after something. I think a lot of times in those moments, teams get a little tight. But I don't think either team did."
The Wildcats, though, have one more reason for confidence after the comeback win. They were clutch in the fourth set and won 25-15, but Dayton raced out to a 3-0 lead in the fifth and eventually had two match points when that lead became 14-12. Once again, UK refused to wilt, winning the next four points and the match. More challenges lie ahead for the Cats, but Dayton gave them yet another reason to believe in themselves.
"I feel like it was just another learning experience, we know what we're made of now," freshman outside hitter Lauren O'Conner said. "We will be able to do it every game. We were down, and all the momentum was with Dayton, and we fought back and really fought hard to bring back the game and win it. I think can we go into other games knowing that we believe and we can win every game."
O'Conner was a key cog in the UK attack all evening, posting a career-high 18 kills along with six digs. Fellow outside hitter Ashley Frazier had 20 kills herself, a season high for any Wildcat this season.
"I'm just always in the mindset that I'm going up to kill the ball and see the block and hit around it," Frazier said. "If it comes back, then that's my job to be prepared to do it again."
In front of a pro-Texas A&M crowd, UK will face another stern test against the Aggies. Skinner isn't concerned about the quick turnaround entering Friday's second-round match.
"I'm not worried about that, we're in great physical condition," Skinner said. "Our strength and conditioning coaches do a great job. It was a long match, and a lot of adrenaline comes into play win the NCAA Tournament. We'll be ready, just have to put our feet up, drink lots of water and get ready to play."