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Volleyball ends weekend on high note with win over Texas A&M

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There are two ways you can go after a tough loss. You can revert as a team, feeling sorry for yourself and waiting for your teammates to pick up the slack.

Or you can take the challenge head on and learn from your mistakes.

The Kentucky volleyball team chose the latter Sunday afternoon in College Station, Texas, when they took on a scorching hot 10-1 Texas A&M team.  

Kentucky was reeling a bit after a difficult stretch in the non-conference portion of their schedule heading into Southeastern Conference Play. The Cats played point for point with then No. 1 ranked Nebraska. But in their first Southeastern Conference match of the season, Kentucky suffered a sweep at the hands of the Florida Gators.

Facing a three-game losing streak, Kentucky was looking to get healthy against a struggling Louisiana State team who was winless through their first two SEC matches of the season in Baton Rouge, La.

The Tigers took the Wildcats to a decisive fifth set on their home court, and despite Kentucky's best efforts, it would be LSU's night to get into the SEC win column.

Kentucky was facing adversity as UK was suffering from their first four-game losing streak for the first time in the Craig Skinner era. After post-match staff meeting and a team meeting at the hotel in College Station Saturday evening, the Wildcats were looking to regroup and refocus going into their match with one of the hottest teams in the country.

"It was really important because I feel like people had been worried about making mistakes or losing their spot if they went out and didn't perform their best," said senior outside hitter Ashley Frazier about the team meeting. "That was really holding us back."

Maybe expectations were too high. Maybe the pressure of a top-15 ranking was too much too handle. Maybe this team missed last year's seniors more than they realized. But there was definitely something amiss from this talented Kentucky squad.

But Sunday was a new day, an opportunity for Kentucky to right the ship and prove to everyone, including themselves, that there was still plenty to play for.

Kentucky took the challenge and at no point looked like the team who lost to LSU just two days prior.

A big reason for Kentucky's misfortune this season was their inability to get out of the gate faster in matches. Slow starts have hampered Kentucky in several of their losses so far this year, and even have shown up in some of their victories. There was no evidence of that on Sunday as UK jumped on Texas A&M right away to grab the first set.

It wasn't pretty, as Kentucky hit .059 for the first set, but UK held the Aggies to a .000 hitting percentage with some great defense. But the first set victory in the hostile, loud environment that was Reed Arena helped Kentucky get out to the quick start that they were looking for.

"It's a great environment," said Skinner. "Texas A&M does a great job at what they do for sporting events. I told our players before the match to embrace it, and they did. They came out and won game one and I don't think it was a factor after that point."

While the crowd wasn't a factor for Kentucky, Whitney Billings was.

Billings went out and had her best match of the season, and it all started in that first set. She used two service aces, three kills and five digs to lead Kentucky in each category. And that was just the beginning of what would be a huge day for the junior right side hitter.

After the early blow, Texas A&M stood right in there with the Cats and levied a counter attack. Texas A&M was led by Tori Mellinger and Alisia Kastmo who had four and five kills in the second set for the Aggies, but it was no easy task. Kentucky could have very well taken a 2-0 lead into the locker room, taking a 24-23 lead late in the second set, but the Aggies rallied for three consecutive scores to give them the 26-24 second set victory to even the match at one point a piece.

Kentucky could have folded right then and there, but a new attitude was apparent on this day.

"We just went out and played loose and free," Billings said. "We weren't thinking about anything except for the moment right now and what we were going to do right now."

With some help from Frazier and outside hitter Lauren O'Conner, Billings and co. went to work on the Aggies yet again, erupting for 10 consecutive points  in the third set, including two service aces by Billings, upping her total for the match to five. Kentucky ran away with the third set to the tune of a 25-18 score heading into the fourth.

The Aggies showed once again just why they were 10-1 and answered once again in the fourth. It was an incredible offensive display by both sides. Kentucky tallied an impressive 16 kills in the set, hitting .424, including Frazier's 1,000th career kill, an impressive achievement. But Frazier was quick to give credit to those who helped her reach this milestone.

"It says I have really good teammates," said Frazier. "I couldn't have gotten there if the passes weren't they way that they are. We have great passers on our team and a great setter who puts it where I need it every time."

But Texas A&M's offensive attack was much more lethal. Though UK was impressive defensively for most of the match, the Aggies could not be stopped in the fourth as they went off for 22 kills and a .514 hitting percentage.

It looked as if the Aggies may have regained the momentum as they nabbed the fourth set, 25-20, to take the match to five.

Yet again, Kentucky was faced with a difficult challenge of fending off the Aggies and a raucous Reed Arena.

Challenge accepted.

Kentucky and Texas A&M exchanged blow after blow, point for point, until UK grabbed a 14-11 lead late in the fifth set. With match point on the line, the Cats and Aggies played out a long rally until freshman middle blocker Sarah Schwarzwalder eventually capped things off with a kill to finish off the Aggies.

The road doesn't get much easier from here. Kentucky (7-6, 1-2 SEC) has a quick turnaround and another challenge in front of them when they host rival Tennessee (9-4, 2-2 SEC) this Wednesday at 7 p.m. on ESPNU. The real challenge will be whether or not Kentucky can build on their success for the upcoming schedule that lies ahead.

"We have to remember how this felt and how we did so when we play Tennessee, we can look back to this match and do some of the same things," said Billings.

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