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Kentucky overcomes Georgia on emotional Senior Day

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The Kentucky volleyball team celebrated Senior Day on Sunday with a win over Georgia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) The Kentucky volleyball team celebrated Senior Day on Sunday with a win over Georgia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Emotions have been running high lately for the Wildcats as the regular season winds down. Tensions were running high after a rough weekend on the road where Kentucky suffered two losses. But with an entire week to focus on the Georgia Lady Bulldogs for Senior Day on Sunday, the Wildcats were on point as emotions peaked before, during and after the game.

"I guess it was really emotional," said senior outside hitter Ashley Frazier. "It was back and forth a lot of the time. The team that had the momentum was the team that usually ended up winning the games, especially in games one and two. It was getting all of that momentum and emotion on our side and keeping it there."

Kentucky held its traditional pregame Senior Day ceremonies on the court before action got started, and it didn't take long for the emotions to rise. But when the celebration was over and the focus turned to the actual match as UK knew they would have its hands full with the Georgia Bulldogs.

Georgia took the Wildcats to five sets in their first meeting. It looked like the Dogs and Cats would be in another tight battle through the early part of set one.

The teams traded points early on in the first set, but it was a kill from Frazier that got things started for UK. A beautiful touch shot that found the floor gave the Cats a two-point edge and propelled them to a 12-10 lead. That lead stretched to 20-15. Then to 22-16. And then UK captured the first set 25-19 on the strength of four of sophomore Lauren O'Conner's match-high 14 kills.

Kentucky looked like it would be cruising to a Senior Day victory from there. Georgia wasn't about to let that happen so easily.

The Bulldogs answered immediately as it appeared there was a role reversal in set two.  Once again, it was a seesaw battle through the nine-point mark, but Georgia began pulling away from there. The Lady Bulldogs jumped out to a 16-10 lead and it was over from there. After an emotional first win, Georgia ripped the momentum right away in set two as they took the second set, 25-18.

The Wildcats and their seniors would have to respond.

Whatever took place in the Kentucky locker room at the break worked wonders because the Wildcats looked refreshed and aggressive. Skinner changed up the strategy a bit, as well as the lineup, and the energy was apparent on the court in sets three and four.

A big part of that was the insertion of redshirt freshman Kayla Tronick. The middle blocker saw action for just her 10th match on Sunday, and she provided quite a jolt after entering the lineup in set two. She then reappeared in the starting lineup in set three and rewarded her coach and her team with seven kills and hit .417 for the match.

"She had a heck of a week in practice," said Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner. "Honestly, she deserved to start the way that she had been playing. We just needed a change of what we were doing and Kayla obviously did a great job.

"She brings a lot of energy and great play for us."

Tronick picked up three of her seven kills in that third set. Meanwhile junior right side hitter Whitney Billings led UK with five kills in the set as junior middle blocker Alexandra Morgan held it down defensively with four blocks. It was a big set for the Wildcats as they finished things off in a dominant fashion, winning 25-14 and taking a 2-1 lead in the match.

"I think Georgia responded really well in the second game and we weren't ready for that," said Frazier who finished with nine kills on her Senior Day. "So when we came into the locker room in between two and three, we talked about refocusing on the game and getting back to our game because they took us out of our game in the second set."

While Kentucky was clearly more focused in sets three and four, it was a strategy change that helped the Wildcats find an edge. At the break, Skinner elected to start serving more aggressively down the sideline to help funnel the Georgia attack to his to his blockers. The aggressive serving not only helped UK earn easy points, but it also put Morgan in great situations to help her rack up a career-high 10 blocks on the day.

Morgan had a huge match. To accompany the 10 blocks, she added nine kills, four digs and three aces. Her two aces in set four were momentum stealers in the fourth set and her blocks always seemed to swing momentum

"(Morgan) did a great job," said Skinner. "Before I think she was reaching for the ball, but today she took away space, which is the most important thing. When she does that, she's tough to hit around."

Kentucky continued to rack up the kills throughout set four, as senior setter Christine Hartmann continued to find all of her attackers all afternoon. She finished with 45 assists and 13 digs to earn her eighth double-double of the season, while leading five different hitters to seven-plus kills on the day.

Hartmann and the Wildcats went on to cruise to a 25-17 victory and 3-1 win on Senior Day. It was just the way the seniors hoped they could go out in their final regular season match in Memorial Coliseum.

"It was great," said Hartmann. "Definitely coming out with a win whether it's three, four or five sets, just knowing that my team's behind me and played their hardest."

As UK (18-19, 12-6 SEC) wraps up their home schedule, they look forward to a short week of preparation before they head back on the road for their final two regular season matches of the season.  The Wildcats will have a pair of matches wrapped around Thanksgiving Day as they travel to Missouri and Auburn to try and boost their NCAA Tournament resume.

Senior libero Stephanie Klefot, who fittingly led the Wildcats with 19 digs on Senior Day, knows UK has to keep a similar focus to be able to get a pair of wins this week.

"It's very important that we finish out and we have a good practice before we leave because we have practice Monday then we leave on Tuesday," said Klefot. "It's going to be a big weekend for us, and then we'll be able to prepare for the tournament after that."

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