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Volleyball ends challenging week with historic upset of No. 4 Minnesota

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Kentucky upset fourth-ranked Minnesota in a five-set thriller in Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky upset fourth-ranked Minnesota in a five-set thriller in Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
When he put Kentucky's 2013 volleyball schedule together, Craig Skinner knew his team would be put to the test this week.

Archrival Louisville was up first on Tuesday. Three days later, the Wildcats would have to turn around and host perennial power Pepperdine. To cap it all off, UK would take on Minnesota, the nation's fourth-ranked team.

Predictably, there were ups and downs.

UK defeated U of L in a five-set thriller to get it going, coming back from a set down and playing through 89-degree heat inside Memorial Coliseum. Pepperdine would then bring the Cats back down to earth with a decisive sweep on Friday, leaving serious doubt about whether UK would be to hang with the unbeaten Golden Gophers less than 24 hours later.

Not only would the Cats compete, they would win. In doing so, they delivered one of the most memorable moments of the Skinner era.

"That's what it's all about right there!" Skinner told his team in a jubilant postgame locker room.

The No. 19 Cats (5-3) pounced on their opponents, taking the first set 25-18 and energizing the crowd of 1,586. Expectedly, Minnesota responded, winning the second set. UK, however, wouldn't wilt, winning the third, narrowly losing the fourth and dominating the fifth, 15-8.

"Just a heck of an effort," Skinner said of the win over Minnesota, the highest-ranked team UK has defeated during his tenure. "We were very aggressive tonight and followed the game plan to a T and players just stepped up and made plays. You gotta make individual plays against great teams and that's what we did tonight."

Making more than her share of individual plays was Whitney Billings. The senior All-American had 12 digs and 25 kills, hitting a blistering .467 and committing just four errors in the process.

"I just went out there and just played my game," Billings said. "I wasn't thinking about anything. I was thinking about now and I wasn't thinking about the next point, I wasn't thinking about the last point. I was just going for it basically."

That's perhaps the most impressive thing about Billings' night: She surprised no one by doing it.

"Whitney played like herself," Skinner said. "She played free, she played aggressive. She's capable of big things and she really performed tonight for us."

Billings, though, was hardly the only Wildcat to deliver on Saturday night.

Lauren O'Conner had a career-high 18 kills. Anni Thomasson tallied her fourth double-double with 10 kills and 14 digs. Jackie Napper had a career high of her own with 24 digs. Running the show was setter Morgan Bergren, who bested her previous high with 55 assists and added 10 digs.

"We were consumed with playing for each other and not thinking about our individual roles," Skinner said. "When we get consumed with how we're going to play for each other, we allow ourselves to play at a higher level. Probably one word to describe that would just be aggressive and live with the outcome."

That's all Skinner was asking for heading into the match. Less than a day removed from seeing his team play far below its potential against Pepperdine, Skinner just wanted the Cats to let it fly. They certainly did that.

"I think it was a hard-fought game, honestly, from the beginning until the end," Billings said. "Before we even went out there, we knew we had to give it our all because they weren't going to give it to us. They didn't give it to us; we went out there and took it."

Even after the Friday-night loss, Skinner knew UK was capable of this kind of performance. In fact, he drew up a challenging schedule hoping to bring it out of his team. With play in the always-challenging Southeastern Conference not far away, the Cats now have incontrovertible proof of what they can do when they're clicking.

"To me, the biggest thing is it builds our confidence and allows our players to understand the level we can play at," Skinner said. "I'm proud of these guys the way they stepped up and I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to get in the gym with these guys because they're fun to coach."

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