Following a 7-1-0 start to the season and the first Southeastern Conference weekend sweep of the Jon Lipsitz era, the Wildcats went 1-4-1. Mired in a three-match losing streak at the tail end of that stretch, UK had not picked up a victory in more than two weeks.
With five days to lick their wounds after a 2-0 loss at Ole Miss, the Cats set about preparing for a third SEC road weekend in four weeks. Lipsitz, meanwhile, set about delivering a stern message to his team.
"I think that there was a challenge posed to players that this isn't good enough and either step it up or you're not going to be on the field," Lipsitz said.
Lipsitz often points to a saying on the wall of his office in the bowels of Commonwealth Stadium. The heart of the message is "You're either in or you're out," that there is no middle ground between players fully committing themselves to the culture at UK and not doing so.
In practice this week, an admittedly meaner Lipsitz was aggressive about making his team decide whether they were in or out, and it wasn't just the coaches laying down the gauntlet.
Based on the results at Tennessee and Georgia, it's safe to say the Cats are all in.
"I think it took a level of toughness and demands being placed on players and the group both from myself, but more so from the leaders," Lipsitz said. "Practices were really tough and the captains and just some leaders of the team made it very clear how much harder we needed to work."
UK accomplished another first under Lipsitz, sweeping a pair of road contests with 1-0 victories over the Lady Volunteers and Lady Bulldogs.
That this team would find itself in a midseason lull was unacceptable to Lipsitz, but that doesn't mean it wasn't understandable. Young players have played significant roles from the outset, with four freshmen among UK's top nine players in terms of minutes played. Three of the Cats' top five scorers are newcomers, meaning Lipsitz relies heavily on 18 and 19 year olds who have never been through the grind of a college season.
"I think that our young players hit that wall that happens with young players where they just don't know if they have more to give," Lipsitz said. "I believe that they have more than they know. I believe in them, a lot of times, more than they believe in themselves."
He is turning out to be right.
One of those freshmen, Kelli Hubly, scored the game winner at Tennessee with under 21 minutes to play. Against Georgia, it was a relative veteran in sophomore Arin Gilliland scoring the decisive goal early in the first half even though the Lady Bulldogs outshot the Cats 21-8.
The victory was a bit of a role reversal for UK.
With their high-possession approach, the Cats have lost matches this season in which they dominated the ball and launched more shots than their opponents only to falter due to their inability to convert chances and a stray miscue. Following those defeats, Lipsitz would keep his focus on possession and passing percentages, saying the results would come.
Now, there are just three matches left in the regular season. After that, the Cats will face single-elimination formats in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, so the time has come for UK to learn to get the result even when they don't play as well as they would like.
"We spent so much time in the preseason and in the early season working on possession and priding ourselves on possession and talking about our passing percentages because that's part of building the team that we want," Lipsitz said. "But in the end, no matter how good you are at that, you have to have the guts and you have to have the depth of courage and work to win games."
There's no clouding the importance of goalkeeping in winning those types of matches and this weekend, Sunday in particular, is exhibit A.
Junior Kayla King took over in goal on Friday, making three crucial saves. Against Georgia, the Louisville, Ky., native stopped 10 shots en route to SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
"She was really good," Lipsitz said. "She did her job. I'm not big on individual awards. I tweet a bunch, but I never retweet individual awards. I never even tweet that my players get individual awards and you'll never see me do it. It's not going to happen."
Lipsitz doesn't minimize individual awards because he doesn't want good things for his players. He does it because he knows those awards are a byproduct of team success.
"If we had lost both games 1-0 and Kayla had played just as well, she wouldn't have gotten an award," Lipsitz said. "And that's not to take away from how well she played. Kayla's going to get recognition from me for the work she did in the offseason to get ready for her moment, not for anything she does right now. Right now she's doing her job."
For UK to extend its two-match winning streak and improve its 10-5-1 (5-4-1 SEC), King is going to need to keep doing her job. The SEC has been remarkably competitive this season. UK recently played four overtime matches in a row and there have been nine ties in conference play this season after there were just three in all of 2011.
In other words, UK should expect more close matches starting on Friday night at 7 p.m. against South Carolina (5-7-4, 2-5-3 SEC). Eight of the Gamecocks' 10 matches have ended in ties or with a one-goal margin.
"They're just very, very difficult to break down defensively and they're very difficult to stop on the counter," Lipsitz said. "Here we are, this team that wants to possess it to a fault and we make one bad pass and they could be in behind us on a breakaway. It's a difficult matchup, but one that we have to love."
A wider audience than the one at the UK Soccer Complex will have a chance to see how the matchup plays out, because the game will be televised on Fox Sports South. Kentucky's first televised game of the season is certainly an opportunity and an indication of the progress of the program, but Lipsitz hardly has time to think about any of that.
"If people don't hand me food and water and stuff, I don't even notice right now," Lipsitz said. "As you get down to this point, you start zeroing in on these little things and I've got to make sure that nothing's missed. Do I think it's cool? I really do. Is it exciting to get to show who we are to the country? Yeah, it really is. But until that camera's in my face, I won't even remember."