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Expectations met as volleyball advances again to Sweet 16

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Kentucky defeated Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet 16. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Kentucky defeated Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet 16. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky volleyball team accomplished a feat that it had not managed since the 1987-88 seasons when they defeated Ohio State Saturday night, 3-1. Dating back to the 1988 season, UK had never reached the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons.

Until Saturday night.

After Kentucky reached the round of 16 last season, hosting a regional for the first time the Craig Skinner era and facing No. 1 seed Texas, Kentucky will be heading back to its second straight regional. The Wildcats will be faced with an equally tough opponent, as they will be matched up with this season's No. 1 seeded Penn State.  But this time, UK won't have the luxury of playing in front of their home crowd.

The Big Blue Nation came out in full force in the first two rounds, and without them, Kentucky may have been in trouble.

"(The crowd) kind of helped us through with that second game and without them I don't know if we would have came back and won," said senior libero Stephanie Klefot. "You hear that "Go Big Blue" chant and you get chills and it gives you that momentum to go out there and kick their butt."

The crowd's energy mixed with team's emotion will send Klefot to the third Sweet 16 of her illustrious four-year career. That level of success is no longer just a privilege, but rather has become the expectation of Skinner's program.

"We set lofty goals at the beginning of the year," said Skinner. "I think as a program, that's what we want to be and what we want to do. The Sweet 16 is the next step."

But before Kentucky could ever think about heading to the West Lafayette, Ind. Regional, the Wildcats would have to go through the high-octane offense of Ohio State. By the looks of things in the first set, it looked like it might be a Big Ten Sweet 16 reunion.

The Buckeyes steamrolled Kentucky in the first set, 25-18. Outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary was a force offensively, and UK had no answers for her eight kills. After a 19-kill performance Friday night against Notre Dame, it looked like the Wildcats would be in for a long night much like the Fighting Irish suffered at the hands of OSU's outside hitters.

Kentucky struggled to execute the game plan that Skinner and his staff had laid out for them early on.

"We knew they were going to get a lot of swings," said Skinner. "We were trying to get our block position to slow them down and we weren't in the right spots. They made some great swings."

Set two was a crucial one for both teams. It looked like Kentucky was going to handily take the second frame to even things up at the break as the Cats jumped out to a 9-5 lead. Then Klefot went to the serving line and turned up the heat with a couple of aces to make it 13-8. A stuff block by the Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan combination made it 14-8, and before the Buckeyes knew it, they faced a six-point deficit.

The deficit didn't last long and the Buckeyes answered the bell. Before UK could blink, OSU had regained the lead at 21-20. Ohio State's six-point run put them at a comfortable 23-20 advantage. But the visitors got a bit too comfortable and it not only cost them the set, but potentially the match.

"It was rough because we had been rolling through that set and we were feeling pretty good," said Ohio State outside hitter Emily Danks. "It was just that moment of let up that they took control of the game."

Kentucky would not be denied facing a three-point deficit. Kentucky pulled to within one at 23-22, but OSU answered on a kill by outside hitter Mari Hole. Now Kentucky was faced with another OSU set point at 24-22.

Enter Whitney Billings.

Billings pulled the Wildcats once more to within one to keep hope alive with a kill at 24-23. Then she really changed the landscape of the set with some dynamite serving to get the Buckeyes out of rhythm. A Christine Hartmann and Morgan block tied it up at 24. Then Billings put the finishing touches on the set to complete the comeback with consecutive aces to give Kentucky the 26-24 victory to go into the locker room with a 1-1 tie.

When both teams came out for set three, it looked like there would be another entertaining and nail-biting set. The Wildcats built an early 5-2 lead off of a couple of Lauren O'Conner kills. Then Ohio State reeled off three in a row to tie it up at five. But Kentucky would take off shortly thereafter with a 6-2 run and never looked back.

The Cats continued to build on the momentum they had gained after an improbable second-set comeback, and OSU seemed to be defeated by Kentucky's physicality and tough serving attack.

"Really they won the serve and pass game," said Ohio State head coach Geoff Carlston. "Whoever won that was going to win the match and they did. Especially at the end of the second set and they kept it going in the third and fourth set and we didn't respond very well but I thought that was a little bit of a reaction of them finding a groove serving."

Kentucky would finish the night with a season-high-tying of 10 aces.

The Wildcats had really turned up the pressure defensively as well as continuing their hard, and well-placed serves. Kentucky would build a 23-15 lead before Billings put the exclamation point on the set with a thunderous kill down the line to give UK set point. Senior Ashley Frazier went to the line, pumped in a sharp serve that was overpassed to the Kentucky side of the net, and O'Conner used one of her team-high 16 kills to clean it up and give UK the 25-15 third set victory.

Ohio State and Kentucky played it extremely close through the opening stages of set four. Each team battled back and forth through the 7-6 mark with UK grabbing the edge. Neither team had held a lead bigger than one point. But OSU blinked first as Ohio State's Mari Hole, who finished with a team-high 16 kills, made a critical error to give UK the 8-6 advantage.

The Wildcats ran with it.

Kentucky had went on a 7-0 run to make it 11-6, and after OSU put another point on the board, UK went on a 8-2 run thanks to a long serving run by Klefot in the middle of the set. Her run gave UK the lead and Billings' run pushed Kentucky to a 15-8 margin, eventually turning into a 17-10 lead.

"I think we practice so much on our serving and we try to go back there and be aggressive and it is a lot harder to do when you are in a big game," said Klefot. "Craig (Skinner) told me to go back there and take a deep breath before you serve and that helps when you focus on a certain spot on the court then we normally get more aces."

Klefot would finish with a monster night, earning 18 digs, five aces and three assists. The five aces were a career high for the senior in her final match at Memorial Coliseum.

Kentucky would go on to finish off the Buckeyes by a final tally of 25-18 when senior setter Christine Hartmann topped of a huge night of her own with her fifth kill to go along with 42 assists, leading her team to a .278 hitting clip.

"I'm glad we are ending this home court with a win," said Hartmann. "Last year we left with a loss and it was a great loss but we learned from it. It is definitely an expectation for this program from here on out."

The task certainly gets tougher for Kentucky now, as UK heads to West Lafayette on Dec. 7 to face the No. 1 seed in Penn State. Ohio State, conference members of the Big Ten along with PSU, has faced the Nittany Lions multiple times this season with unfavorable results. The Buckeyes fell to Penn State twice this year, each ending in sweeps.

"I don't think anyone matches up real well against Penn State to be honest with you," said Carlston. "I think Kentucky is pretty physical but Penn State is a different animal right now.

"I think Kentucky if they get in a groove and they serve like they did against us that gives them a chance I think. It's going to be a good match, two real physical teams."

The Cats know what's ahead of them, however. They've seen the same situation play out in front of them. No matter whom they play, regardless of the seed or name on the jersey, Kentucky will be ready to play Friday night. Once again, back in the Sweet 16.

"It's an opportunity," said Skinner of facing Penn State. "Our team typically rises to the challenge of whoever's in front of us. We typically play better against better teams.

"We trust what we do, and consider each point as the most important point of the season. Like I said before the tournament, I like this team and can't wait to go into a match with them."

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