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Gilliland adjusts leadership style as UK readies for NCAA

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Arin Gilliland has 11 goals and nine assists entering UK's first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Ohio State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Arin Gilliland has 11 goals and nine assists entering UK's first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Ohio State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Besides being Kentucky's leading goal scorer and primary offensive threat, Arin Gilliland had a well-established role on the team.

Through tough training sessions, the junior star helped keep UK loose with her goofy personality. As Jon Lipsitz pushed the Wildcats to reach their potential, Gilliland was always there to lighten the mood with a friendly jab at her coach.

"I kind of kept everyone laughing," Gilliland said.

But a few weeks ago, Gilliland -- a First Team All-Southeastern Conference performer -- realized she needed to change.

In UK's final regular-season home match on Oct. 27, Stuart Pope -- the yin to Gilliland's yang -- went down. The team's second-leading scorer, Pope would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury that would require reconstructive surgery.

Like Gilliland, Pope had a clearly defined role.

When a stern message needed to be delivered, it was the junior midfielder who spoke up. When the team wasn't as focused at it needed to be, Pope was always there to remind the Cats of their goals and the work it would take to reach them.

In matches, UK would clearly miss Pope's dynamic play in the midfield, but her absence was felt immediately in practice. With their task master gone, the Cats began to flounder.

"We weren't paying attention to the details," Gilliland said. "We weren't doing all the little things that needed to be done that Stuart would get on people about."

With the SEC and NCAA tournaments still ahead, Gilliland decided to put on her serious face.

"When I saw that and Stuart's over on the sideline doing her rehab like she should be and no one was taking initiative, I kind of realized, look, this is going to continue to go on if someone doesn't do anything," Gilliland said.

Gilliland gathered her teammates and told them the role she had filled for most of her three seasons was going to change. With UK's home first-round NCAA Tournament matchup (Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET) with Ohio State (10-6-3, 4-5-2 Big Ten) fast approaching, the Cats (13-6-1, 7-5-0 SEC) have responded.

"I think this week's been our best week of training since preseason," Lipsitz said. "We are just really sharp. We have a better idea of who can play and who can't. It seems like every week we were adjusting to another player being out and I think we know who we are now."

Considering that Pope's injury is only the latest in a string of misfortunes that might have undone a lesser team, it's impressive that UK has even reached this point. It started when senior captain Ashley VanLandingham went out with a season-ending knee injury of her own in the spring and continued when sophomore Courtney Raetzman was lost before conference play, but the Cats never stopped.  

"The fact that we've been able to overcome the adversity just proves the depth of this team and the passion and drive that we have to be the best that we can be this year," Gilliland said.

Simply being tabbed to host a first-round NCAA Tournament match for the third straight season is an accomplishment, but it's not one UK is willing to settle for.

Two years ago, the Cats were elated to just make it to the biggest stage in their game. Last year, they were eager to win the first NCAA game in school history. With that memorable extra-time victory in their back pocket, the Cats are ready for more.

"Once you get over the hump and get that first, I think your preparation's very different, I really do," Lipsitz said.

Standing in UK's way is an opponent familiar to Lipsitz.

Before he went on to head-coaching stops at Charlotte and now Kentucky, Lipsitz was an assistant at Ohio State from 2001-04 under Lori Walker, who is in her 17th season leading the Buckeyes.

"I think I know them very well and I think they know us very well," Lipsitz said. "Obviously it's a coaching staff that I deeply respect. I coached at Ohio State with Lori. She's obviously done a tremendous job. Her two assistants (Glen Tourville and Jason Goodson), they're great friends of mine."

Lipsitz mentioned defensive organization, set pieces and finishing as keys to the game, but he won't overload his team with information. The Cats, after all, have been working toward this moment from the preseason's first practice.

"All those little details that get worked on early in the season are about preparing for now," Lipsitz said. "They just keep talking about, 'Take care of the details. You've been coached to do these things, trust this process and we know that we'll be successful.' "

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