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Volleyball's quick-start emphasis pays off in NCAA first round win

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Whitney Billings (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics) Whitney Billings (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)

Craig Skinner stressed starting strong to the Kentucky volleyball team all week.

The Wildcats lost their regular-season finale to highly ranked Florida in five sets, largely due to a poor start, losing the first two sets before UK could even come up for air. Given the circumstances of the last outing, Skinner knew what to focus on in the practices leading up to the NCAA Tournament.

Yet coming off two straight losses -- albeit against the Southeastern Conference's top two teams -- few would have blamed UK for taking some time to hit its stride on Saturday given the losing streak, the pressure of hosting a first-round NCAA Tournament match and the 10-day layoff since its last match.

But Skinner's emphasis on maintaining focus from the first serve through the final kill of each set paid off in UK's straight-set win over Duquesne on Saturday evening.

While the Wildcats seemed to come out of the gates firing, so did the Dukes. In fact, Duquesne took the match's first multi-point lead at 10-8. Still Skinner was happy with his team's start to the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

"I was actually really happy (with) how aggressive we came out in set one," Skinner said. "You never know how you're going to come out so I thought we did a nice job being aggressive. We made a couple of errors but that's fine.

"We want to be aggressive and you have to play like that in the tournament ... (Duquesne) came out with purpose to win the match and they did a nice job of forcing us to be a little bit more intelligent with some of the things we did. Our defense picked up. (Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan) did a really nice job of following the game plan and hitting smart shots."

Indeed Skinner was pleased with how UK weathered Duquesne's blistering start, and as the first set entered its latter stages UK hit its stride.

Trailing 14-15 at a media timeout, UK then won four straight points. While Duquesne threw in some runs of its own down the first-set stretch, UK never looked back in winning the opening period 25-23 and dominating the next two en route toward advancing to Sunday's second-round matchup with Michigan State (4 p.m. ET).

"There's a lot of adrenaline, a lot of things going through your mind when you start the NCAA Tournament and I'm very pleased with how we got after it," Skinner said. "You can't really prepare for what the other team is going to do and how they're going to respond to the situation and it was neck and neck all the way through point 15 and I felt like our demeanor was the exact same in the first set as it was at the very end of the last set. That's important, and obviously very important against a very good Michigan State team tomorrow night."

Billings was a big reason UK was able to pull away midway through the first stanza and stay ahead from there. The first-team All-SEC selection had four kills and four assists in the first set and finished with a match-high 18, just two away from her season high for a three-set affair.

It comes as little surprise that in her post-match comments Billings emphasized the team's aggressive start, as all the Wildcats were clearly keyed in on starting strong given Skinner's talking points all week.

"We just realized that we had to get it going," Billings said of UK's run midway into the first set. "At some point in the game we have to just push on the gas and just go. So, we just kept going for it, like I said. We gained momentum at the end."

The senior stepped up to start her final postseason campaign. Billings' coach took notice of her leadership by example.

"Whitney has been fantastic the last two weeks," Skinner said. "Her demeanor and her competitive fire have been impressive to see as a coach and whether she's playing fantastic, okay, or not okay, she's the same and that's what you want out of a senior leader. (She is) someone that is driven and so she's done an impressive job and you really have to focus a lot on her to stop her.

"We'll expect that. Physically, she's always had the ability. Mentally, she is on a different level right now."

Both teams enter Sunday with fresh legs

While playing matches in back-to-back days in the non-conference season is common for SEC teams, once conference play begins most teams shift to a schedule of Friday and Sunday outings.

Thus the NCAA Tournament sub-regional format of matches in back-to-back days provides a challenge teams have not seen in the past few months.

Still, both teams had a relatively short Saturday as each earned a straight-set win.

Skinner previews matchup of similar styles

After focusing on NCAA Tournament prep for the past 10 days -- with an extra day thrown in as the first-round matches were postponed from Friday to Saturday due to inclement weather in the Lexington Area -- Skinner could finally turn his attention to a team other than Duquesne following Saturday's win.

Looking ahead to Michigan State, Skinner revealed that the two teams do a lot of things in similar fashion.

"Two very physical teams," Skinner said. "Two teams that kill the ball at a high percentage. Two teams with experience playing against very good competition so it's going to be a great matchup and it's going to be important for us to come out aggressively like we did tonight.

"I don't think Michigan State is a team that's going to give you a whole lot. You're going to have to earn your points, whether you're siding out or with your blocking defense after you serve. So, high-level match right here in the Coliseum and I know our kids can't wait to play again. It seems like we've been preparing for the first round for about six days but hopefully weather will let us play tomorrow."

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