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Volleyball finishes nonconference play with a flourish

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Through nine matches of nonconference play, Kentucky seemed intent on giving fans their money's worth. The Wildcats played four five-set matches, including two in the span of five days in hosting Louisville, Pepperdine and Minnesota.

But to close out pre-conference play, the Cats didn't want any part of those marathon matches. On Saturday, they swept pass Lipscomb on the road. To follow it up, UK did the same at home against Morehead State.

Though Monday against in-state Morehead may not have gone the distance, the experience of playing those kings matches laid the groundwork for the 25-18, 25-21, 28-26 victory.

"Winning those tight five-game matches has helped us realize that we have to close at the end of games," setter Morgan Bergren said. "We can't let things extend on and on. We really needed to come out and finish those close ones tonight."

And finish the Cats did.

No. 18 UK (8-3) went on runs of 6-0, 6-2 and 9-4 to close out the three sets, turning close games into comfortable wins in the first and second and overcoming a 22-19 deficit in the third. Just a few weeks ago, the Cats easily may have faltered, paving the way for yet another five-setter, but no more.

"That's a pleasing part of this match for sure, and I thought our concentration level went way up when we got to point 20," head coach Craig Skinner said. "That's a sign of a mature team and a competitive group."

Leading the way was Bergren, the junior who has taken hold of the setter position. Athletic and tall, Bergren adds a dimension that changes the way UK plays and the way opponents play UK. That was particularly true on Monday.

Bergren had five of her seven kills in the first set on well-time dumps, forcing Morehead to account for her. That, in turn, opened up the rest of the floor for her teammates.

"It really got them paying attention to me," Bergren said. "I noticed I had more one-on-ones outside and just mixing it up I was able to go back to it later on because they stopped jumping on me. It was good to get involved early on just to get the one-on-ones outside."

From there, Bergren capitalized by dishing out 38 assists.

Whitney Billings led the UK attack with 13 kills, adding 14 digs for her 36th-career double-double. A senior, Billings has been through the transition from nonconference play to the Southeastern Conference and she's confident in UK's position.

"I feel pretty good about going into conference," Billings said. "We played some really good teams preseason that's prepared us for going into conference. We've played some close matches, so we know if we're in that situation in the conference, we know what we have to do."

Skinner, ever the coach, sees plenty of room for improvement, though even he admits the first month of the season has been a success.

"Well, we set a goal to be at least 8-3 in pre-conference so we're on track," Skinner said. "I feel like our blocking still needs to get better. In the SEC it's going to be a little more physical and people hitting the ball pretty hard, so we gotta slow the ball down at the net. I think this group's chemistry is pretty good and I think that's really important in a long conference season."

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