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Reaching, hosting NCAA Tournament still special for volleyball

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Alexandra Morgan will lead UK into an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with Duquense on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Alexandra Morgan will lead UK into an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with Duquense on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky volleyball team has gotten used to being in this position.

As they gathered on Sunday night to watch the Selection Show together, the Wildcats had advanced to eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments. In two of the previous three years, they earned the right to host the first and second rounds.

That doesn't make accomplishing both feats yet again any less rewarding.

"Our kids played really hard this year and we had a great schedule. We had a lot of good wins throughout the year," Skinner said. "To be in a position to be on your home court the first and second rounds, to host the first and second round, is a great feeling."

UK (21-8) was tabbed the No. 15 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, meaning the Cats will once again play their first- and second-round matches in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum. Alexandra Morgan remembers well playing NCAA matches at home in previous years and the advantage it provides.

"It's so much fun," said Morgan, who was named to the All-Southeastern Conference first team on Monday. "Our fans are always amazing at our games, but I felt like the in the tournament they were louder, there were more people there just because it is the national tournament and our season's ending."

Kentucky will open its postseason run on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET against Duquense (20-9). The Dukes won the Atlantic 10 for the first time this season and enter the tournament having won 13 of their last 14 matches.

"You've just gotta think about the first round, and Duquesne is that team," Skinner said. "They won their league and had a great season."

By the time the Cats take the floor later this week, they will have waited nine days since their last match. UK took days off on Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving and returned to the practice floor for two solid days of work over the weekend.

"We've been working really hard in our past two practices," Morgan said. "We've gotten a lot better and we just need to stay focused on volleyball and getting better as opposed to worrying about other distractions that we could be going through right now."

With the fall semester coming to a close, the Cats will have to balance preparing for finals with volleyball. They aren't particularly worried.

"I don't think that's going to be tough for us," Morgan said. "This is a really strong team, we're a competitive team and we're really good at focusing on volleyball and that's going to get us pretty far, I think."

UK enters the tournament having lost two straight, but that's somewhat misleading considering the level of competition faced in those matches. The defeats came against Missouri and Florida, teams seeded fourth and fifth overall in the NCAA Tournament. Add in a win over Texas A&M, another tournament team, in the third-to-last match and you have an end-of-season stretch that figures to have the Cats ready for what's next.

"You can't ask for a better schedule to end the year to prepare you for the NCAA Tournament and our next match," Skinner said. "I'm very excited about how it ended in terms of who we played."

The final result didn't end up being what UK wanted, but the fight the Cats showed in a five-set defeat against Florida is certainly encouraging. The Gators were dominant in the first set and came back in the second to steal a 2-0 lead, but Kentucky didn't fold. Quite the opposite in fact, as UK won the third and fourth before falling in five.

"It's very good to know that, if we start out poorly, that we can finish a lot stronger," Morgan said. "The Florida game was very disappointing, but seeing how hard we fought in the second and third game and the other games just gives me a lot of hope."

Skinner hopes to take even more than hope away from the loss. First, it's a lesson in the importance of starting fast against top competition. Second, it's a lesson in how good the Cats can be when they're clicking.

"We took from sets two, three, four how Kentucky volleyball plays at its highest level," Skinner said. "If we play like that, we can match up with anybody. But it's a matter of doing that and we have to figure it out this week in practice and get the ball rolling on Friday night and hopefully give us a chance to take the next step forward in the tournament."

The next step forward is the second round -- where UK would face the winner of Michigan State and Ohio. After that, Kentucky is looking at an opportunity stay home again for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Lexington was tabbed as a regional host three seasons ago and the Cats have been thinking about playing in that regional ever since.

"We were really excited about that and that's one of our goals we set out in the beginning of the season," Morgan said. "We want to be playing in that regional and we have all plans to be playing in that."

Skinner is all about preparing one match at a time, but he also doesn't mind if his players glean a little extra motivation from the prospect of playing in the regional.

"Of course we aren't going to look past Duquense and that matchup, but sure there's motivation to get there," Skinner said. "You would think that every team that has the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament is motivated to advance. We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here. We're here to get the next opportunity to play."

All-session tickets for the first and second round go on sale Monday at 9 a.m. ET and can be purchased at the UK Ticket Office, online at UKathletics.com/tickets or by calling the ticket office at (800) 928-2287 or (859) 257-1818. All-session tickets are $12 for reserved seats at Memorial Coliseum. Adult general admission tickets (13+) are $10, while seniors (65+) and UK students can purchase all-session tickets for $6 and youth (ages 3-12) general admission tickets cost $4. Single-session tickets, which are $8 for reserved seats and $7 for adult general admission seats and $5 for seniors/UK students and $4 for youth, go on sale Friday at 9 a.m.

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