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Cats top Cards in hotly contested battle

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Freshman Anni Thomasson had a double-double in her first-ever match against Louisville, a five-set UK win. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Freshman Anni Thomasson had a double-double in her first-ever match against Louisville, a five-set UK win. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When Kentucky and Louisville get together on the volleyball court, it's a pointless exercise to try to predict the winner.

The only thing you can be certain of is that it will be a battle.

"I don't know what it is," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "Four out of the last six have gone five (sets). It's a battle and you can throw out records, you can throw out the last match, you can throw out statistics and it always just seems to be a real competition. You see a lot of emotions, a lot of adrenaline, a lot of nerves and tonight was no exception."

It certainly was not.

The outcome was in doubt until the final moments, but the No. 19 Wildcats (5-2) took down the visiting Cardinals (2-4) in five sets. In a seesaw affair, UK fell behind 1-0 before winning the second and third sets. U of L would answer in the fourth, but a 5-0 run in the fifth closed it out for the Cats.

"I feel like we left everything out there and we knew that all of us were going to win that game," said senior Alexandra Morgan, who tied for the team high with 13 kills. "We knew that we were going to fight our hardest for every point."

Tuesday evening's match, with its momentum swings and emotional moments, could be figuratively described using the word heated, but the term is even more fitting in a more literal sense. With outside temperatures reaching the low 90s earlier in the day and 1,888 fans in Memorial Coliseum for the rivalry showdown, event staff reported the temperature on the floor was around 90 degrees throughout.

"I didn't even play and it felt like I lost about six pounds out there with the heat and tried to drink as much water as possible," Skinner said.

Skinner said both teams' setters had the toughest task in coping with the heat, as perspiration from passes made for a slippery volleyball. UK's Morgan Bergren managed a game-high 51 assists anyway, applying her experience practicing indoors during the summer.

"We do practice in it a lot," Shelby Workman said. "We're used to it. It's definitely not been that hot in a while, but we're kind of more prepared. We know what to expect. We worked in it in August in 100-degree weather, so we've just got to fight through it. We don't have another option."

The Cats had more than just heat to fight through against U of L. Using a more aggressive approach, the Cardinals got off to a blistering start in taking the first set, 25-17. UK responded in the second, building a 24-18 lead. Louisville, however, would score the next five points to create a few tense moments, but UK avoided a 2-0 hole by taking the next point.

"We could have packed it in there when they got it to 23 and we got it done," Skinner said. "Those are big moments."

More big moments awaited after Louisville dominated the fourth set to force a decisive fifth. The two teams traded points throughout the middle of the set, but UK rode a wave of emotion during that match-ending run.

Thomasson committed an attack error that gave the Cardinals an 11-10 lead, but redeemed herself two points later with the kill - her career-best 13th of the match - that would give UK the lead for good.

"I don't think she fears much and she thrives in those situations," Skinner said. "That's what competitors do."

Anni Thomasson added a team-best 16 digs - also a career high - in the match, which served as her initiation into the UK-U of L rivalry.

"It's intense, for sure," Thomasson said. "I've never really been on a team that wanted to win as much as this team does. Just seeing all the emotion from the girls with this game is just unreal."

UK's will to win has been on display over the past five days, as the Wildcats have won a pair of five-set matches to bookend four victories to open their home season. Skinner knows there's no substitute for a proven ability to produce in those situations.

"It's a lot of experience because you can't create that in practice," Skinner said. "You can't create being up big in a set and winning. You can't create going down big in the fourth and then coming back in the fifth. For us to weather the storm and win the last two five-setters we've been in says a lot about the toughness of these guys when it matters."

Skinner just hopes UK's next five-setter comes in more comfortable temperatures.

"I didn't," Skinner said when asked whether he ever considered loosening his tie, "but I saw an ice bucket behind the bench and I was thinking about sticking my head inside it."

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