Kentucky went into its Friday night Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Penn State with a thoroughly constructed game plan. After all, it was going to take perfect preparation to knock off the top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
At times, it looked like Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner and his team had figured out the Penn State Nittany Lions.
But unfortunately, at other times, Penn State had figured out Kentucky as well. Penn State did the better job of following through and executing the game plan.
The No. 16 Wildcats' season came to an end after a 3-0 sweep at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., Friday night.
"Hats off to Penn State," said Skinner after the match. "They were awfully good tonight. They played a lot better tonight than I feel like they had in the last couple of weeks."
Kentucky felt very confident in its plan of attack to upset Penn State. In sets one and two, the Cats really looked as if they had a chance of threatening the traditional powerhouse. They served tough and brought physicality to the net with their blocking. But in each set, Kentucky often was its own worst enemy.
Unforced errors were costly, especially when Penn State was giving UK plenty of opportunities to take hold of the match. The mistakes undid the good works their game plan provided, and Penn State was able to reel off long runs. In the end, Kentucky's inability to stop the bleeding late in sets one and two made the comeback efforts too little, too late.
"Each point is such a momentum builder in a match like this that you need to capitalize in each phase of your game," said Skinner. "It can't be just attacking or ball control, it needs to be all phases. When you get the chance to transition for a point and extend the lead to three points, you've got to do it because Penn State is capable of running three or four points in a row and tying the match up pretty quickly."
Coming out of the locker room, the Wildcats weren't the same team they had shown to be after draining sets one and two. Penn State made quick work of Kentucky and advanced to the Elite Eight.
Kentucky would be going home and their season would be over. Friday night's loss would signal the end for three very giving and decorated seniors in Ashley Frazier, Stephanie Klefot and Christine Hartmann. But it also marked the beginning of looking forward to next season.
Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings will be one of the starters who will be back on next year's team. After playing in consecutive Sweet 16s, she knows that this can be a good learning experience when it comes to preparation for next season.
"Well the people that are coming back next year just need to remember how this feels," said Billings.
Though a loss was far from the desired outcome, the experience gained will serve as motivation going into next fall.
"You have to know how it feels, and I think our team did know how it felt," said Skinner. "If we're able to turn a couple more points in sets one and two and steal a game, then it's a completely different mindset for us. Penn State understands that we're for real to make this a match. The younger players have seen it, been around it, felt it, and now it's motivation for the winter."
Despite the disappointment of losing in another Sweet 16 for consecutive seasons, getting there twice and for the third time in four seasons is quite the accomplishment on its own. And both Klefot and Frazier are a big reason for the recent success of Skinner's developing program.
"I'm so happy I could be a part of the Wildcats and playing for Craig," said Klefot. "I'm going to miss (my team). This season, we didn't start off our best, and to make it to the Sweet 16, I don't think anyone thought we were going to make the tournament. I'm beyond proud of my team."
Frazier, a two-year player after transferring from Alabama after her sophomore season, knows that she made the right decision after seasons like this.
"When I transferred here, I came here because this was a winning program," said Frazier. "I mean, that's what I got when I came here. My two years I was eligible, we went to the Sweet 16 both years, so I'm really happy with that. Obviously I would have liked to have gone farther, but it was a good two years."
Now, Skinner and his staff will take some time to shake off the agony of defeat. But it won't be long before begin planning on how to continue to take this product to the next level. It's a process that all starts in the offseason, and most of the heavy lifting has to be done before the team ever even makes the NCAA Tournament field.
"We need to continue to develop the program and recruit great players," said Skinner. "We have a great class coming in. Providing the belief that this program is going to a Final Four and competing for a championship. We have several players now that have been in the Sweet 16 and understand what it's like, understand what it takes, and we can't just start thinking about that when it's tournament time."
Skinner hopes that Kentucky can start off stronger at the beginning of the season to help them be able to get a higher seed so that when the Cats face the Penn States of the world, it's in the Final Four instead of the Sweet 16.
"We need to think about that when it's week one of the season and playing good teams and putting ourselves in position to win those matches so that we get a better seed," said Skinner. "Working all season long to try and get yourself into a position when you're a top-five seed, a top-eight seed, so you can maybe give yourself a better chance to go beyond where you're at."