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Volleyball sweeps Mississippi State at Big Blue Madness

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The match had been set in stone for Oct. 12. Mississippi State was scheduled to come into Lexington to play the Kentucky volleyball team for one of several scheduled matches at Memorial Coliseum.

Until it wasn't.

Chasing a dream of his, Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner began talking to some of the UK Athletics administration about possibly changing the venue of the Mississippi State match.

Why? Because that date coincidentally was scheduled for the same night as Big Blue Madness.

Since becoming head coach at the University of Kentucky eight years ago, Skinner had hoped to play a match at Rupp Arena in front of a big crowd. After exchanging some ideas with men's basketball coach John Calipari, the dream became much more of a reality. With some help from Calipari and support from the administration, Skinner's dream was starting to look more like a reality.

After figuring out the logistics of playing a volleyball match at Rupp Arena, Skinner and the volleyball team were given the green light to be the opening act for Big Blue Madness before the women's and men's activities got underway.

Last season, Kentucky was given a similar opportunity on the road, also at Mississippi State, to play at their Maroon Madness. After UK fell to the Bulldogs last year, it was time for Kentucky to treat Mississippi State to a similar opportunity.

Come Friday night at 5 p.m., it was actually happening. Kentucky had the chance to play in front of 5,261 fans that arrived early to Big Blue Madness to check out the Skinner-led Wildcats which broke the attendance record for the Skinner era.

Though Kentucky originally hoped to possibly break the national attendance record for an NCAA volleyball match, Skinner was just hoping to expose people to a new sport.

"I had no idea what to expect," said Skinner. "I doubted we'd get the national attendance record a few hours before the madness. I think what I wanted to see out of it was to get some people exposed to a high level sport that our athletes compete at and give them a chance to see it and hopefully come back and see us at Memorial Coliseum."

Speaking of Memorial Coliseum, Rupp Arena it is not. Other than their spaciousness, they bare little in resemblance or atmosphere. For one, Rupp Arena, capacity wise, is nearly three times the size. Memorial Coliseum, known for its warm temperatures and sticky air, provides a much different climate than what Kentucky and Mississippi State experienced Friday night.

"I think the air conditioning currents (in Rupp Arena) were up a little bit," said Skinner. "The ball was floating a little more than usual serving and passing-wise. I think for both teams it was very difficult to serve and receive and both teams served pretty tough too. It cost us some points, but overall it was a great experience for us."

Kentucky seemed to handle the conditions much better than Mississippi State, as the Cats sailed past the Bulldogs with relative ease winning in straight sets (25-18, 25-18, 25-18). Alexandra Morgan and Ashley Frazier led the way for Kentucky offensively with eight kills apiece.

For Morgan and her teammates, the opportunity to play in Rupp Arena was something that they had looked forward to ever since they got the news.

"If anything I think we were excited and kind of forgot what we were here for," said Morgan. "We were really excited to come here, it hadn't been done before. We had been talking about it for awhile."

Kentucky started off well in each set, but took longer to put the Bulldogs away than it had hoped. Part of that may have been due to the new atmosphere. And though it was considered a home game for the Cats, in a lot of ways it felt like a road game with the brand new conditions.

"It was a great experience," said Morgan. "In a way it was kind of like playing at an away gym because we weren't used to the lighting, the crowd and everything. But, it being our fans and seeing all of the blue and all of our students, it just felt like we were at home."

Though Kentucky fell way short of the national attendance record they hoped to achieve, the 5,261 fans was far and away the highest number ever recorded during the Skinner era.

But no matter the attendance and no matter the venue, Kentucky was going to come out and play as hard as they could for whatever fans happened to show up Friday night. But they were certainly appreciative of those that did.

"If we had one fan out there, we would play as hard as we could for that one fan, so we tried to do the best we could," said Morgan. "We appreciate everyone that came out because I know they're all mostly basketball fans, and we really appreciate that they came out early."

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