After the first two points of the match, ETSU seemed the more experienced unit as the Buccaneers held an early 2-0 lead. That two-point advantage was short-lived.
Kentucky delivered an early bounce-back blow, going on a 20-3 run in the first set, ultimately leading to a 25-9 victory.
It was evident that the nerves and excitement of playing their first NCAA Tournament played a part in ETSU's first set struggles. Kentucky took advantage.
"It is different," said Skinner of making an NCAA Tournament debut. "Our first time in the Tournament you see the logo, you see the media, you see the different people there, you see the crowd and the bands. It's a different deal.
"Thankfully we've been in the Tournament. Our players have been there before and understand that."
Senior outside hitter Ashley Frazier certainly looked like she's been there before. She pounced on the ETSU defense, leading the Wildcats with four kills in that first set. Kentucky combined for 10 kills in the set and a .409 hitting percentage. But the defensive was equally impressive. The Cats picked up 15 digs in the frame and despite tallying no blocks, held ETSU to a .032 hitting percentage.
The Buccaneers settled in, however, and wouldn't leave Memorial Coliseum without putting up a fight.
Each team took turns going back and forth scoring points with ETSU eventually grabbing a 9-7 lead. Frazier looked to thwart the ETSU attack with a kill, but the Bucs answered right back.
Buccaneer outside hitter Megan Divine took to the serving line and tried to break the Kentucky passers. And it look like she might do it. She recorded three straight aces, baffling the Wildcats and forcing Kentucky into a timeout. She pushed the Bucs out to a 13-9 lead and it appeared Kentucky was in for a tougher battle than it expected after the first-set result.
Looking to break the momentum, senior setter Christine Hartmann looked to her other outside hitter in sophomore Lauren O'Conner. O'Conner broke Devine's serve with a kill, then it was the sophomore from Taylor Mill, Ky., who helped pull the Cats back even with the Bucs at 14 with another kill. She had four kills in the set.
"We got quiet when they ran a couple points," said Skinner. "You have to expect good teams to make good plays. ETSU did in the middle of the second set. It's just about trusting what you're doing and enjoying the journey of each point."
Then Hartmann took matters into her own hands on the next point and threw down a one-handed dump at the net to give Kentucky a 15-14 lead. And the Cats were off. They also picked up their defensive intensity, picking up three blocks in the set after recording no stuffs in the first.
Frazier tacked on two more kills in the frame, bumping up her total to eight on the night. It was another impressive run for the Wildcats after going down 13-9, UK went on to outscore ETSU 12-3 and took the second set 25-17.
Though Frazier was on her way to having a big night with 12 kills on 22 swings with just one error, she was quick to acknowledge that it was a total team effort Friday night.
"I don't think it was anyone individually who felt they needed to step up," Frazier said. "It was a total team effort. Going into the tournament, everybody's good at this point. You're going to have to play your best game in order to win."
East Tennessee still wasn't ready to let Kentucky walk away so easily. With a very impressive traveling party who made the trip from the Volunteer State, the crowd implored the Bucs to hang in and fight back. The Bucs did just that, staying with Kentucky early on in the third as they traded points to a 5-5 deadlock. But as Kentucky did all night, the Cats ran out to another long scoring stretch.
ETSU picked up two points to tie things at five, but a quick 6-0 run by Kentucky gave the Wildcats a lead they wouldn't look back on at 11-6. Frazier not only did it with her attack, but she also did it with her serve tonight, picking up an ace and serving tough to get the ETSU offense out of system. Her ace made it 18-7 and the route was on.
Kentucky finished with five aces and just one error. The Cats earned seven blocks after not recording one in the first set. And they tallied 43 digs including a match high 10 from senior libero Stephanie Klefot. Those statistics were the keys to the Wildcats' success.
"Our serving, our blocking defense and digging were the difference in the match," said Skinner. "That needs to be a mainstay for tomorrow night."
Kentucky went on to finish off the Bucs, 25-15, and take the sweep of their first round opponent to earn the right to face Ohio State in Saturday's second round. The Buckeyes put on an impressive offensive display against Notre Dame, also sweeping the Irish while hitting at a .512 clip.
Outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary had a monster night, picking up 16 kills on 19 swings, hitting .842 for the night. Kentucky will have the opportunity to try and stop Leary and the rest of the OSU offensive attack tomorrow night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at 7 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum where fans can expect to see the game played at the highest level.
"(Ohio State has) made plays all year, and had a really good season within the Big Ten and beat a lot of good teams," said Skinner. "It's going to be a good volleyball match. It's going to be as good of volleyball as you're going to see in the country."