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Fight there for UK, but seniors' road ends in second round

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Coming to grips with the fact that Kentucky's season had just ended, Craig Skinner wasn't thinking about himself. He knows he'll have more chances to lead his program to where he believes it will go.

That's why his mind was on those players whose road ends here.

"The hardest part for me is when you have a group of seniors that deserves to keep playing," Skinner said. "The effort that's put in and how hard these guys work, it's tough to swallow when you don't come out on the winning end of a match like this."

Making its ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance under Skinner, UK lost to Michigan State in the second round on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. In a competitive match from start to finish, the No. 15-seeded Wildcats dropped the first and came back to win the second before falling in four sets.

"You have to give Michigan State credit because they killed the ball at an extremely high rate in sets three and four and that was the difference," Skinner said.

For a brief moment, it appeared the Spartans might run away with a sweep. The Cats were down 15-12 in the second already behind 1-0 on the match when a likely suspect -- and one of the players for whom Skinner felt so bad -- emerged.

Senior Whitney Billings, as she has done so often throughout her decorated career, stepped up. Executing the game plan to perfection, Billings served UK to a 7-0 run and an eventual second-set win.

"I think we got them out of system with the short serve and so we kept going with it," said Billings, who had 18 kills, 13 digs, two assists, two blocks and an ace in her final game in a UK uniform.

Though certainly disappointed in the ultimate result, Skinner couldn't find a bit of fault in the way UK competed on Sunday.

"The effort was there the entire match," Skinner said. "They competed hard and you can't ask for more than that. You just hope that you execute better so you can score the points."

That's particularly true for the senior class of Billings, Alexandra Morgan, Jessi Greenberg and Desirre' Wilkerson.

"They've been committed since day one, but you really saw a sense of pride and urgency for the program in the last half of this season," Skinner said. "Nothing's ever given to you and at this point in the game it really starts to hit home that it's not given to you so you gotta go for it. All these guys went for it."

Joining them were the Wildcat underclassmen, who found themselves playing for their veteran teammates as much as themselves in the final moments.

"I just didn't want it to be the last game for the seniors," said Jackie Napper, who had 21 digs. "They have fought hard since they've been here. Whitney and Zan for five years, Dez for two and Jessi for four. I didn't want it to be their last game."

The loss will not erase all the quartet's accomplishment and certainly not Billings'. The Helena, Ala., native leaves UK as one of three three-time first-team All-Southeastern Conference honorees in school history and the only player in the 25-point scoring era with 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs.

"When I first got here, I didn't really know where my spot was going to be in Kentucky volleyball," Billings said. "But as the years went on, I kind of found my spot on the team as a leader and stuff. It's where I am now."

With the loss still so fresh in her mind, Billings will surely have clearer thoughts about her UK legacy in the coming weeks and months. Nonetheless, she's happy with what she's done.

"I felt like I have my team everything I could when I needed to," Billings said. "And I know they looked up to me. I know there were some times that I didn't come up for them, but most of the times I did."

Returning plenty of talent among the 11 players who will be back next season and adding two highly regarded signees, the future is bright for UK.

"From here, the returners have to figure out a way to get better and go beyond this point," Skinner said.

When the Cats do go the next level, they won't do it without the departing seniors, not completely.

"A piece of them will always be here with us," Skinner said.

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