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Volleyball narrowing focus for NCAA Tournament

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In the life of college volleyball players, it doesn't get much busier than early December.

Like normal students, they have the end of the fall semester and approaching final exams to think about. Unlike normal students, their seasons are on the line.

For No. 15 Kentucky, the NCAA Tournament begins on Saturday against Duquense. With a week and a half since their last match, the Wildcats attacked their time off by honing their focus.

"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," senior Alexandra Morgan said.

Those distractions come in many different forms.

"It's us-or-them time of year," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "There are so many things going with school, finals coming up, a lot of people wanting to come to matches that haven't been there yet, all kinds of social life and whatever it may be."

Skinner is asking his team to tune those things out for the next couple weeks.

"For us to eliminate those things so we can focus on getting our schoolwork done and then focusing on volleyball is very important and I'm glad Zan has taken that to heart," Craig Skinner said. "And I think all our team is just based on what our concentration level's been like at practice. I think they're very serious about performing well and they like competing with each other. That's a big part of it."

When he addressed the media on Wednesday, Skinner reported his team had had three strong days of practice in preparation for what he initially thought would be a Friday match. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas and inclement weather moved this weekend's matches back a day.

For a less experienced team, that delay might be a problem. The Cats, though, are well-accustomed to playing in win-or-go-home situations.

"You just can't create the atmosphere, a little extra pressure being in the NCAA Tournament," Skinner said. "It's us or them moving on after each match."

Skinner is counting on that past experience, but knows it offers know guarantees.

"Does that translate into wins and losses? I'm not sure about that," Skinner said. "At least there's a sense of comfort. I've done this before. I have an understanding of what's at stake and how hard I need to play for my team."

Cementing that understanding for the Cats were the three matches they played to close out the regular season. Facing Texas A&M, Missouri and Florida, UK took on three tournament teams, two of which earned top-five overall seeds. The Cats beat A&M, but dropped back-to-back matches to No. 4 Missouri and No. 5 Florida to close the season.

The kind of competition UK went up against in those matches will be an asset as the Cats move on to what's next.

"It's a heightened level of concentration," Skinner said. "You have to be engaged for every single point because against good teams it's going to be back and forth a lot. You're not going to get runs of points. You're not going to score three, four, five points at a time very easily unless teams make mistakes."

The Florida match, in particular, offered plenty of teaching moments.

UK was blitzed in the first set, losing 25-11, revealing the importance of a strong start. To that end, Skinner changed around practice.

"We did a time drill (Tuesday) where all of a sudden they're on the clock and they have to perform within five minutes and execute," Skinner said. "We weren't very good at it to begin with, but then understood and got better as practice went on. So doing some things in practice where they're on the clock and have to perform within a certain amount of time I think was beneficial to us."

If not for that slow start against Florida, UK very likely would have upended the highly ranked Gators. The Cats narrowly lost set two before winning in three and four to force a decisive fifth.

"The way we played in sets two, three and four against a top team in the country, that's the level we need to perform at," Skinner said.

Duquense (20-9) doesn't boast the same lofty ranking as Florida, but Skinner still wants to see that kind of volleyball against the Dukes at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday.

"They're team made up of kids that have come from a lot of good club programs, so they're experienced and they have three attackers very capable of putting the ball away," Skinner said. "We have to be very prepared in each particular rotation and understand which attacker is the one that's getting the most balls."

Whoever is across the net and whatever round the Cats are playing in this NCAA Tournament, Skinner expects to see an aggressive team.

"We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here," Skinner said. "We're here to get the next opportunity to play."

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