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Kentucky's preparation for No. 1 Penn State a long time in the making

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Kentucky looks to break through to the Elite Eight with a win over No. 1 Penn State Friday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky looks to break through to the Elite Eight with a win over No. 1 Penn State Friday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
If you didn't know any better, it would almost seem that Kentucky has been preparing for this Friday's Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Penn State since, well, they faced the No. 1 seed Texas in last season's Sweet 16.

Did Kentucky know it would be paired up in this year's bracket with the No. 1 seed for the second season in a row? No. But the Wildcats had the wherewithal to look ahead thinking that there might be a chance they could have success in the NCAA Tournament and eventually meet some of its top teams.

They loaded up in the non-conference portion of their schedule with a murderers row-like roster of competition. Kentucky faced tournament teams like Louisville, Nebraska and Oregon. Both Nebraska and Oregon are still alive in the Sweet 16 this season.

Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner would tell you that his team is battle-tested and that there isn't a situation this season that it hasn't been in. Playing the top team in the country on a neutral court is a new one, however, this season for the Wildcats. That just may play into their hands, knowing that they've faced top-ranked Nebraska on its home floor and coming dangerously close to upsetting the Cornhuskers on the road.

What Kentucky has been playing for is the experience and knowledge on how to handle tough situations like the one it will be in Friday night against Penn State at Mackey Arena on the campus of Purdue. The mixed results and the battles with some of the fiercest competition on the country will give Kentucky its best chance to upset the Nittany Lions.

"When you get to this point it is all about executing," said Skinner. "We've done our best all year to prepare us for these moments."

The players know what type of opportunity they had last season in the Sweet 16 to make a statement, and they believe they let one get away. Last year's team, however, didn't face one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country either.

While this year's matches will give UK a lot to draw on when it comes to different parts of Friday's match, the biggest influence could be that very Texas match that happened 363 days ago.

"The big thing about the situation that we're going into is it's one that we've already been in before playing Texas as first seed last year," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "We've been here before; we know how to handle it."

And the situation is not one that these players are even thinking about backing down from. They are ready to show the country what they are made of and that they can play with the best of the best.  For them, Friday night can't get here fast enough.

"When you're in the office on Monday and your players are saying, 'Can Friday just get here?' they're amped about the chance to get out and compete again," said Skinner. "I think that's really it. It's not necessarily who, what, where, it's just the chance to get out and compete again."

That attitude is the same approach the Cats have taken from the beginning of this year's tournament, if not even further back into the regular season.

Kentucky knows that in order to compete with any team that it has to take care of what it does and focus on the way it plays. Now is not the time to start changing things up, but rather continue to try and perfect the things that they already do well.

"It's a normal game day and nothing changes," said junior right side Whitney Billings. "It's Penn State and we know they are good, but we are going to keep doing the same thing that we've been doing which is focusing on the opponent."

It's the same message that Skinner has been preaching to his whole team, and based on their words, they've heard it loud and clear. Kentucky has built its identity, and now it's going to see if it's good enough to take down the Nittany Lions Friday night.

"We have to do what we do," said Skinner. "We can't really change who we are, how we go about things. We have a system. We have things we do well."

What Kentucky has done well in the tournament is serve tough and play great defense. Penn State is a team capable of blowing any team out of the gym with the type of athletes and physicality that it brings to the table. While it's easy to scout an offense, as Penn State has likely done extensively this week, it's almost impossible to game plan for a poised defensive team.

That's exactly what Kentucky has to offer on Friday night.

"I've always thought as a coach, whether this is who I've worked for or whatever it is, you can't prepare for a great defense," said Skinner. "You can prepare for a great offense, but a great defense is hard to prepare for. It's something we take a lot of pride in and work on every day."

Kentucky boasts the Southeastern Conference Libero of the Year in senior libero Stephanie Klefot. They also have the SEC's third-best blocking team, averaging 2.53 blocks per set, highlighted by junior middle blocker Alexandra Morgan who ranks sixth in the SEC with 1.08 blocks per set.

The Wildcats will also need to continue to serve tough to keep Penn State out of rhythm on offense. It's been a strong suit of theirs all season, as they averaged 1.47 aces per set. But in the tournament, they've turned up the pressure even more so. Against East Tennessee State, UK used five aces and tough serving attack to earn the 3-0 sweep. On Saturday, the Cats doubled that number with 10 aces against Ohio State to send themselves to West Lafayette, Ind., to take on Penn State.

With the match looming, the focus and energy will be at an all-time high this season for the Wildcats. It needs to be. It should be. Skinner knows what kind of opportunity lies ahead of he and his team, and he expects everyone to be up for the challenge when first serve flies at 5 p.m.

"They're excited, their adrenaline is pumping and we've been ready to play since Monday," said Skinner. "There's no question that they will be excited and that there will be some nerves. If there aren't nerves then I think there is something a little abnormal there.  

"We seem to rise to the occasions and rise to opportunity, and I expect nothing else."  

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