Kentucky took home the hardware Saturday night with a 3-1 victory over the Long Beach State 49ers. It was no easy path to the championship with an impressive field that gave Kentucky all it could ask for. But in the end, no team in the field could match UK's size and athleticism.
It was a great test for the beginning of the season. The Wildcats didn't ace the exam, but their performance was strong enough to pass and give head coach Craig Skinner a better sense of what he has to work with this season.
"We need to have a consistent level of energy all the time not just when a great block happens," said Skinner. "It needs to be more consistent, but I learned that they keep their composure. They don't get flustered to much when they're down no matter what the opponent is and that's going to be important all year."
The first two sets against Long Beach could not have been any less alike, and a trend of slow starts reared its ugly head once again in the opening stanza.
Earlier in the day, Kentucky had to fend off a scrappy Lipscomb bunch that pushed Kentucky to the brink. The Wildcats came away with a five-set win, and the carryover seemed to show up in the first set. The 49ers, however, fell in a five-set match of their own to North Carolina, and they played immediately after the Kentucky-Lipscomb tilt. Long Beach State was still the aggressor in set one despite a shorter layoff between matches.
Sophomore outside hitter Lauren O'Conner agreed that the earlier match may have had a lingering effect.
"Maybe a little bit," said O'Conner, "But I think we all had the mindset that we needed the next point and we all took our game to the next level to get the urgency back."
One of Kentucky's biggest areas for concern against of Lipscomb was the inability to pass well and attack within system. The trend continued early against the 49ers, which had UK all out of sorts early on. Long Beach raced out to an 18-9 lead and UK looked ready to cave. But a quick 6-0 run cut the lead to 18-14 and breathed some life into the Cats.
Kentucky got its urgency back.
Despite the UK rally, Long Beach State would walk away with the set, 25-19.
But the late momentum from set one was evident as UK exploded out to an early 14-4 advantage, looking like an almost completely different team, other than the name on their jerseys. The Cats were fundamentally sound, aggressive and showed much more energy.
From there on out, it was all Kentucky.
Alexandra Morgan terminated five balls on six attempts to lead the Cats in the second set, hitting at a near perfect .833 attacking percentage. Meanwhile, some key defense in the set helped Kentucky keep some of that early momentum, as Whitney Billings and Stephanie Klefot tallied four digs each.
Kentucky would walk into the locker room with a 25-18 win in the second set to tie the match up at one set apiece.
The third set was the turning point for the Cats. With Morgan commanding attention in the middle, room opened up for both outside hitters to take charge. They certainly seized the opportunity.
Point after point senior, setter Christine Hartmann looked to her outsides in scoring opportunities, and they delivered. Fellow senior Ashley Frazier got out to a fast start, while the Kentucky Classic Most Valuable Player O'Conner had five kills in the third, including the set clincher.
Frazier was explosive and owned Long Beach, pounding out six kills in the set and imposing her will on the defensive side with two solo blocks. When Skinner's outside hitters play at that level, Kentucky looks awfully tough to beat.
"It's good to see," said Skinner. " Against great teams you need outside hitters to terminate the ball. It's another thing we've worked on a lot in preseason and it paid off. It took us a while to get it going, but they did a great job. They didn't get flustered by errors and made changes and got kills in the end."
O'Conner and Frazier finished with 16 and 13 kills respectively, combining for 29 of Kentucky's 57 kills in the match.
Kentucky finished off the match with another impressive set. After a disappointing beginning, the Wildcats made sure this match would not be going to a decisive fifth set as it had earlier in the morning. They did it mostly by imposing their will with a stern defensive presence. Kentucky tallied 13.5 blocks in the match including 4.5 stuffs in the fourth set alone to thwart the 49ers' offensive attack.
Defense has been a point of emphasis for Kentucky all preseason long, and it showed Saturday night.
"I guess I'm figuring out we spend more time working on defense in practice than we do offense," said Skinner. "We probably need to balance that a little bit because our offense has got to get a little bit smoother. But you know that's by design. We want to be better defensively early and try and catch up offensively."
With the win, the No. 13 Wildcats own a 3-0 record, and they won't have to wait long to see the court again. Kentucky will travel to rival Louisville Wednesday night and will likely play in front of a raucous crowd at the KFC Yum! Center at 7 p.m.