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Volleyball settling in for stretch run after big weekend

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Senior setter Christine Hartmann is leading UK toward a strong finish in 2012. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Senior setter Christine Hartmann is leading UK toward a strong finish in 2012. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's been a mixed bag for the Kentucky volleyball team this season, but as the Wildcats hit the stretch run, they're playing at a high level. Some have been unfavorable, but there likely isn't a situation the Wildcats haven't been faced with this season.

Last weekend, Kentucky found itself trailing its biggest Southeastern Conference rival, the University of Tennessee 2-0 as the two teams went into the break. After UK swept the Lady Volunteers in Memorial Coliseum earlier in the season, it looked like UT was well on the way to returning the favor.

Trailing by two sets at the break was not a new situation for the Wildcats. They had gone into the locker room facing that deficit multiple times this season, but have been unable to climb that hurdle. Florida was able to overcome that deficit when the Cats had the Gators on the ropes, trailing 2-0.

Of course, Florida had the luxury of playing in front of ots home crowd that day. The Cats, well, they were on the road playing in a building in which they they had not won since 2008.

But as you probably already know by now, the Wildcats pulled it off. They won three straight sets against Tennessee and swept the season series with the Vols for the first time since 2007.

Georgia, an up-and-coming program in the SEC East, gave the Wildcats quite a test as well as the Lady Bulldogs threatened to end Kentucky's 13-match winning streak over the Bulldogs. After UK pounded UGA by 12 points in the first set, Georgia came back and took the second set, 26-24. The Cats took the third set, then the Dogs the fourth.

In the fifth set, Kentucky flexed its road warrior muscles once more. For the second straight road match, the Cats won the decisive fifth set 15-12.

And when the dust settled, Kentucky found itself right back outside of the top-25 in the AVCA poll as the top vote-getter not to crack the list. UK sat alone in second place in the SEC East. The Cats also saw themselves ascend to No. 15 in the RPI.

Speaking of mixed bags, senior setter Christine Hartmann has had her share of variety this season. After finding herself on the bench behind freshman Morgan Bergren early the in the season, Hartmann has battled all the way back, much like her team did this weekend, to find a great deal of success.

For the second time in three weeks, Hartmann was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week after posting a near triple-double against Tennessee in which she had a career-high with nine kills, 52 assists and 11 digs. She posted another double-double against the Bulldogs, leading UK to a .338 hitting percentage for the match. That number was good for best in the league by any team in SEC play this season.

Several offensive players had great matches over the weekend, but you have to credit Hartmann for putting them in position to do so. Much credit goes to the attackers for putting the balls away, but given the .338 hitting percentage, chances are  that Hartmann was money for most if not the entire Georgia match.

Kentucky is yet to put together a really solid stretch this season. The Cats' longest winning streak of the season is just four, dating back to the early portion of the SEC schedule. Now riding a three-match win streak, the Cats can match and surpass that with SEC opponents Ole Miss and South Carolina looming this weekend back in Lexington, Ky.

While UK is likely going to continue its approach of taking the season one match at a time, it appears its toughest test will come when the Cats head back out on the road to face Arkansas. The Razorbacks dismantled an unsuspecting Wildcat team when the Hogs came to Memorial Coliseum in mid-October. The rest of the schedule looks quite favorable for UK.

A strong stretch run in its final seven matches paired with a strong RPI could do wonders for Kentucky's position in the NCAA Tournament. After a brief moment of speculation, Kentucky appears to be a lock for the Big Dance this December, and if UK handle business the rest of the way, could end up hosting and grabbing one of the top 16 seeds.

That is all, of course, if UK can find consistency and no longer produce a mixed bag of results. At this point in the season is typically where teams find their identity.

Have the Wildcats found theirs?

Only time will tell, but they have to feel confident in the direction that they are headed over the last few weeks of the season.

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