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Defense leading Kentucky in three-match win streak

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An overlooked aspect of Kentucky's two, make that three-match winning streak after a 3-1 win over Auburn Sunday has been the defense. The Wildcats have been all over the floor, making incredible digs and momentum-shifting blocks. They may not be getting to every ball, but for this team it's all about quality over quantity.

"It's something different each match, it seems like," said head coach Craig Skinner. "I felt like Auburn out-scrapped us for a lot of that match, but then we end up with more digs than they did. You've got to rely on your defense and you can't prepare for a good defense, so we have to make sure we're ready to go each time."

And the quality of this team's defense has been infectious.

"Anytime they can get the ball high up in the air, we're fine," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "(Alexandra Morgan) had a dig that almost hit the ceiling in the third set, and even if we can do that, as long as we have (Morgan) in the middle whose making those kind of touches, we're going to win every (match)."

The defense even spread to Hartmann, who notched her fourth double-double of the season with 45 assists and 12 digs. But it was her ability to find her attackers behind the back that made the offense go on this day.

Juniors Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan were a lethal combo for the Kentucky offense, running mostly behind Hartmann on the right side. Billings tallied a season-high 19 kills on the day, while Morgan broke her personal best with 15 kills.

It's been their performances of late that have really solidified the offense.

"I don't know where it came from, but it's the best thing I've seen ever since I've been here," said Hartmann. "They're always ready to go, they're always calling for the ball and I always know I can count on them."

The Kentucky offense came out looking like a team riding high on a two-match winning streak in set one.  UK built an impressive 8-2 lead in the first set and looked to be hitting on all cylinders. The Wildcat attackers couldn't miss, while the Tigers looked out of their element early on. But if Auburn's 12-3 record is any indication of their talent, they would not back down from the early deficit.

After the Cats looked to have the first set very much in hand at the 20-13 mark, Auburn stormed back to pull to within three points at 23-20. Auburn looked to be back on track after a sloppy start, and the Cats seemed to be doing the Tigers all sorts of favors with miscues of their own. But despite taking the Tigers' best punch, Kentucky held on for a 25-23 first-set victory.

Or at least UK thought that would be Auburn's best punch.

The Tigers were far from done after it looked like they had stolen most of the momentum in the building with their run near the end of the first. Kentucky did jump out with yet another good start, taking an early 8-5 lead after a couple of service aces by sophomore outside hitter Lauren O'Conner. But once more, the Tigers stormed back, taking an 11-9 lead in the second.

Kentucky was beginning to resemble the team that had suffered a four-match losing streak prior to the last three wins. They began to lose their swagger and confidence as the Cats began to make more unforced errors.

What had carried Kentucky through their last three matches was great defense with high-quality touches from the block and the second-row defense. The Cats turned up the heat again defensively, especially defensive specialist Jessi Greenberg, who made two incredible digs, ultimately leading to a 19-19 tie with Frazier pounding a kill on the next point to give Kentucky the late 20-19 lead.

Greenberg is always looking to bring energy to the floor for her teammates when she gets her opportunities, and she did that again on Sunday.

"I just get excited no matter who has the dig," said Greenberg. "As a defense we get so excited because that means we can transition out of it and get a kill and that's what we did, and that's Kentucky volleyball for us."

It looked as if Kentucky had stolen all of the momentum in the set, but the Tigers clawed back again, outscoring Kentucky 5-2 from that point on to take the second set.

It was a total team effort for the Cats in the third.

After Kentucky and Auburn had traded points early in the third set, the Cats suffered an injury on the front line when freshman middle block Sara Schwarzwalder went to the floor with an apparent ankle injury. Fellow freshman Kayla Tronick came in for relief, and handled herself quite well.

As the rest of the team rallied around Tronick, the Wildcats took off from there and never looked back. Hartmann went to junior right-side hitter Billings 14 times in the third, and it paid dividends. Billings put away half of those sets for kills, finishing with seven kills in the set and helping the Cats withstand another Tiger run.

"Making plays like them and making some digs and some key blocks when we needed to help stifle momentum," said Skinner. "(Morgan) really stepped up for us attacking-wise, had another big night."

Meanwhile, junior middle block Alexandra Morgan was showing just how much this team's defense has rubbed off from player to player. Morgan, typically known for her defensive efforts as a blocker, looked like a defensive specialist while holding serve. Making one-handed digs and defending the back row like she had done it all her life, Morgan helped the Wildcats maintain their late lead while growing momentum for the Kentucky. The Cats went on to win the fourth 25-19.

With the win, Kentucky (9-6, 3-2 SEC) goes over .500 for the first in the SEC this season with matches on the road at Ole Miss and Florida looming next weekend. If the Wildcats hope to sustain this momentum, the upperclassmen will need to continue to deliver the leadership they've shown during UK's recent winning streak.

"They're pretty focused throughout the day and the seniors are to starting step up and lead in that way and understanding that we have to be ready to go," said Skinner. "This is a different league with a lot of good teams and Auburn is one of them."

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