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Skinner learning about Cats quickly heading into home opener

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Senior Whitney Billings registered double-doubles in each of UK's three matches last weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Senior Whitney Billings registered double-doubles in each of UK's three matches last weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Knowing the opposition Kentucky would be facing, Craig Skinner knew he was going to learn a lot about his team during the season's opening weekend.

He just didn't know how it would happen. With matches against one top-20 team and two more with strong cases to be ranked in three days, UK seemed as likely to sweep the weekend in Long Beach, Calif., as it was to lose three in a row.

It turned out UK was facing the possibility of the latter after dropping decisions to Florida State and Illinois on Friday and Saturday. But instead of wilting, the Wildcats showed their coach something.

"We didn't get the results that we wanted in the first two, but we improved every time we stepped on the floor and I was encouraged by that," Skinner said. "And also definitely encouraged by the fact that we lost two in a row and then came back and won so convincingly on Sunday. That was a pretty good sign of a mature, competitive team."

Just as encouraging was the way UK went about its business, even in defeat. In a 3-0 sweep against Florida State and a tough 3-2 loss to Illinois, Skinner saw a team that never wavered in its approach.

"One of the things that we've always stressed throughout the spring and then the preseason is that their demeanor is the same every point," Skinner said. "I felt that was the case this weekend regardless of whether we were up 2-1 or down in a set. They still had the same focus."

Carrying that focus into Sunday, UK played its best match of the weekend in taking down Long Beach State in three sets.

"I'm proud about the way we bounced back because we lost the first two," Whitney Billings said. "We did get better each match though, which is kind of unusual. We knew what we had to do; we were just putting it together."

As for her own game, Billings didn't need any time to get going. The senior outside hitter has had a decorated UK career - she was a First-Team All-Southeastern Conference honoree in both 2011 and 2012 and a Second-Team All-American according to Cobra Magazine in 2012 - but she was at another level last weekend.

She tallied three double-doubles in as many matches, highlighted by a career-best 26-kill performance against Illinois. Even going back to her pre-college days, Billings can't remember having that many kills in one night.

"She singlehandedly put us in position to beat Illinois," Skinner said. "Unfortunately we didn't get it done in the fifth game, but she was pretty good."

Billings' effort was borne partially out of necessity, as freshman Anni Thomasson and sophomores Shelby Workman and Kayla Tronick work to secure the left side of the UK attack that Ashley Frazier occupied a season ago.

"We have new people on the left side this year and I just feel like I need to step up and do what I need to do," Billings said.

In her final season, Billings says she's ready to carry a heavy load, and her current kills-per-set average of 4.45 suggests she may continue to do just that. Skinner, however, sees the kind of balance that has come to define UK volleyball in recent years developing as the season wears on.

"She's someone that's capable of doing that," Skinner said. "Is it something we want to do all the time? No, I'd like to have more balance in the offense and get more kills in other places. But it's nice to know that we can count on her to come up big for us when we need her because there are going to be a lot of matches where we're going to ask a lot of her."

Another match or two like that could be forthcoming this weekend as UK opens its home schedule with the Kentucky Classic on Friday and Saturday. The Cats will play an athletic VCU squad at 7 p.m. ET on Friday, then a pair of matches against Liberty and East Tennessee State on Saturday at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.

"It'll be important that we have the same focus each and every point throughout the weekend because mentally we have to stay engaged, stay in tune," Skinner said. "These teams are all potential NCAA Tournament teams and they're athletic. If we're not ready to go and not focused on each point, these teams are all capable of stringing together great sets and beating anyone this weekend."

But with limited time between matches, there's only so much that can be done to prepare. That's why UK has kept its focus internal this week.

"The first match, we can put a lot of energy into VCU," Skinner said. "After that, we definitely have to rely on what we're good at. We'll have some things that we'll try and focus on with each of the next two opponents, but it'll be definitely more important taking care of our side of the net."

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