With a renewed vigor and confidence after pulling out an emotional win on the road at Texas A&M on Sunday, Kentucky came out and threw the first punch... and the second... and the third. After UK took a 10-6 lead in the first set, and then pushed it out to a 15-8 advantage, there would be nothing that Tennessee could do to stop Kentucky on this night.
"The one thing I knew is we needed to step up and play at the level we're playing to beat that team because it's a very talented team," said head coach Craig Skinner. "This group was really focused. I'm really proud of the way they were focused after game 2 even being up 2-0. That's a sign of a good team and a step forward and progress for us. We've got to keep moving."
It was a huge step into the right direction for the Cats, as they continue to build momentum with the meat of their Southeastern Conference schedule looming. After taking down the Aggies on Sunday, they were looking at another top-tier SEC program, and their biggest rival at that.
Between Sunday and Wednesday, Kentucky tried hard to focus at the task at hand while also appreciating the rivalry.
"Tennessee is a huge huge, huge rival," said junior middle blocker Alexandra Morgan. "We always play hard against them and they always play hard against us so that definitely had a lot to play. The fact that we haven't been doing so well, we wanted to come back to our home court, all of our fans. That really encouraged us and we just played loose."
One of Kentucky's weaknesses during the rough patch was an inability to play loose and limit mistakes. Wednesday night saw UK take on a bit of a role reversal as the Wildcats were nearly flawless for most of the match. In fact, two of their players were.
Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings and Morgan had 10 and nine kills respectively. But even more impressively, they combined for a goose egg in the error column. Billings tallied her second straight double-double, adding 16 digs (a match high) and hitting .455 on the night. Morgan also enjoyed a big night on the attack, posting a .562 hitting percentage for the match and kicking in three block assists on defense.
A big reason for their success on the night was Kentucky's ability to move the ball around at will offensively. The Wildcats showed great offensive versatility, making defense a guessing game for Tennessee defenders all night. Kentucky also did a great job of exploiting the Volunteer game plan that left Morgan and Billings with one-on-one opportunities from behind the setter for the majority of the night.
The lack of a defensive presence on the right-side attackers came as a surprise to Billings and Morgan, but one-on-one looks are a more than welcome site for any hitter.
"You could tell they were focusing on the outsides," said Billings. "When they do that, we just keep on going behind and we'll score."
While Morgan and Billings were getting free, open looks all night, the Tennessee defense focused heavily on the Kentucky outside hitters. Realizing that senior outside hitter Ashley Frazier had been receiving a lot of swings lately, UT devised a plan around stopping the left-side attack.
While Frazier tallied only three kills on 13 attempts for the night, sophomore outside hitter Lauren O'Conner was left with the responsibility of making things happen on that side of the net. O'Conner had been struggling in recent weeks, shuffling in and out of the lineup, but against Tennesee she made her present felt more than at any point at this season, looking to be back to her SEC All-Freshman team form.
O'Conner got 29 swings on the night, tops on the team, and delivered in a huge way. The sophomore had been experiencing her own problems with attacking errors, but over the last two matches, she's been able to keep herself from compounding those mistakes. She's become resilient. She showed that often Wednesday night with a team-high 11 kills, with a few of them coming immediately after committing errors on the previous play.
It appears that maybe she's turned the page on a slow start to her 2012 season.
"That's as good as she's been all year," said Skinner. "It's good to see her back and feeling good about things and being aggressive."
It wasn't just the offense though. The Cats played well in all facets of the game. They were relentless defenders. They blocked, they covered, they dug, they passed. It was an impressive performance that saw them out-dig the Vols, 54-45, while out-blocking a Tennessee squad that Skinner called the most physical in the league, 9-4.
What may have been the driving force behind Kentucky's energetic play was the energy they received from a loud crowd at Memorial Coliseum with a "White Out" promotion. They certainly made an impression, as even Skinner noticed the home-court advantage.
"Boy, they were juiced tonight," said Skinner. "I actually heard them tonight. I don't usually hear the crowd. I'm pretty into what's going on in the match, but I love the energy they gave us."
The Wildcats (8-6, 2-2 SEC) will celebrate the win tonight, knowing that they are the first UK team in 17 years to send the Vols home with a 3-0 defeat. But if the last two matches are any indication, the focus will soon turn to Auburn (12-2, 3-1 SEC), which is enjoying a great start to their 2012 campaign. The Cats will look to grab their third straight win on Sunday when the host the Auburn Tigers in Memorial Coliseum at 1:30 p.m.