The opportunity was there, and Mark Stoops knew it.
South Carolina was coming to town for a night game. Fans were buzzing over Kentucky's first Southeastern Conference win in almost three year. A blackout had already been announced.
All the Wildcats had to do was capitalize on the moment.
"We had it teed up pretty well," Stoops said at his weekly press conference on Monday. "We had the enthusiasm. The stadium was packed. We had a night game against a traditionally very good SEC team at home, and you want to deliver. You want to play well. You want to get a victory."
Though that was far easier said than done, UK pulled it off. The Cats twice overcame 14-point deficits, completing the largest fourth-quarter comeback in school history with a 45-38 win.
From two record Spring Game crowds to improving ticket sales to the two highest-rated recruiting classes in school history, Stoops had already generated plenty of excitement around the program. That excitement, however, was mostly about the future.
Saturday was all about the here and now.
"Everybody may see what you're doing and understand that there is progress being made," Stoops said. "I never shied away from that. You heard me talk about it before the season and everything, that I will be judged on wins and losses. It's a bottom-line business."
The bottom line looks a lot better after that win over South Carolina, which only figures to help the staff's already impressive work on the trail.
"I think there is a lot of people believing in what we are doing and how we go about recruiting players," Stoops said. "We help the players once they get here, they see that. But it's important for them to see progress on the field."
The progress now shows in UK's 4-1, including 2-1 in conference play. The Cats have already matched their win total from the previous two seasons combined, inspiring talk of bowl games and even SEC East title contention after the signature win of the Stoops era.
Stoops isn't engaging in any of that talk. He's too focused on the task immediately at hand.
"One week," Stoops said. "We need victories, you know? That's the bottom line. We can't worry about that. We will worry about ourselves and getting better."
Stoops, you see, was as happy as anybody on Saturday night, even extending his postgame press conference by two questions to bask in glory of the win for a few extra moments. But once he woke up the next morning, that was over and done with. His thoughts had moved on to a Saturday matchup with ULM.
"You know me, I talk about it and it's true: We're back to this week," Stoops said. "You know what I mean? It's a one-week season for me. We gotta go play well this week, and it starts over. Win or lose, it starts over for us on Sunday. That's the way we approach it and that's the way our team needs to approach it."
His players aren't as practiced in the art of moving on from a big win as he is, but they'll have plenty of help from Stoops.
"We'll stay with the plan we do, but the message will be different," Stoops said. "Again you've heard me say it before, they're going to hear enough good things from a lot of people and they're excited, I'm good with that. But they're going to hear about some of the negative, too, because we knew it was going to be a big environment."
Playing in the best environment Commonwealth Stadium has seen in years, the Cats were far from flawless even though they scored the upset. And in its own way, that's a good thing too.
"We stressed all week about taking care of the details in technique, not being too caught up in it where it hurts, and that showed," Stoops said. "They're going to hear about that and see that. That's the good news: There is a lot to correct from. There is still a lot more in this team. We can be a lot better and we're going to continue to work extremely hard to improve."
It's time, in other words, to capitalize on another opportunity.
UK deep at guard with West's return
Zach West hadn't been on the field in weeks, but he didn't look it against South Carolina.
After battling a neck injury, West was back as the starter at left guard on Saturday and he didn't miss a beat in playing a game Stoops said was his best.
With West and Cole Mosier now healthy and joining Ramsey Meyers and Nick Haynes, UK has depth at guard that should prove valuable going forward.
"What's nice now is we have four guys inside now," Stoops said. "We had two, but we had some injuries. Now we're getting back and getting healthy, so now we're going to rotate all four guys."
Now that West and Mosier are back, attention shifts to Alex Montgomery and Jeff Badet. Stoops said the two wide receivers are not yet 100 percent, though they continue to rehab and run. Four freshmen back from suspension
After sitting on Saturday due to an on-campus incident, Dorian Baker, Stanley "Boom" Williams, Drew Barker and Tymere Dubose will be available to play this weekend.
"The players will be reinstated, yes, and they'll be back in the fold this week," Stoops said. "They will be back at practice and play in the game."
LSU game time set: Night game in Death Valley
The SEC announced television selections and kickoff times for games on Oct. 18. UK's game at LSU will kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
A "blacked-out" Commonwealth Stadium (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's fourth-quarter comeback victory over Steve Spurrier's South Carolina was a cathartic experience for everyone who has invested in the UK football program in recent years.
At least prior to Saturday in the Mark Stoops era, when Kentucky would go down by 14 points they would lose the game. And so to come back twice from 14 points and win, was a novelty for those who have been around Kentucky over the last two years.
To their credit, Stoops' teams never gave up in past close games in which they fell behind, they just never finished the job. The Wildcats fought back valiantly in Southeastern Conference games against favored teams like Mississippi State and South Carolina last year, in addition to a triple-overtime loss at Florida three weeks ago.
So the 2014 Wildcats' ability to fight back from a two-touchdown deficit not once, but twice -- including with less than 12 minutes remaining in the fourth -- made the program-changing victory over the Gamecocks all the more of a milestone.
D.J. Eliot realized that Kentucky had gotten over a hump it had so often struggled to mount since the current staff took over before the 2013 season.
"We've had some some tight games before," the UK defensive coordinator said. "We had a tight game with these guys last year and we didn't win. This year we ended up on the better side. I'm excited about that."
Running back Jojo Kemp, who was the offensive star of the game with three touchdown runs and 131 yards on 17 carries mostly out of the Wildcat formation, summed up just how big the win was for a program that is learning to win in an on-field interview with the SEC Network after the game.
"I came here to change the program. And that's what we're doing," Kemp said. "Why not us? Why not Kentucky?" Brown gets tricky against the Head Ball Coach
Saturday's win was, for lack of a better term, a "game-changer" when it comes to outward impressions of the UK football program.
In terms of the game itself, a trick play early in the third quarter may just have given UK the confidence it needed to defeat South Carolina for the first time in four years.
Once again out of the Wildcat, from which UK scored all five of its offensive touchdowns, Kemp handed off to wideout Javess Blue, who ran left before pitching back to Patrick Towles. From there the UK quarterback passed 48 yards for a touchdown to Ryan Timmons. The touchdown gave UK its first lead of the game, igniting a season-best crowd of 62,135 as well as a sideline of players already high on belief, but hungry for results.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown certainly enjoyed executing a trick play against South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier who after all is known for his willingness to take risks.
"To be honest, yeah, it was fun," Brown said of the de facto flea-flicker. "It was the same play we ran against Tennessee. We had it the same and we didn't execute it. It was fun to execute it. That was the first trick play I think we've hit it right since I've been here.
"We used to hit those all the time at (Texas) Tech and Troy. So that was fun. It was a big play in the game. You talk about--that place was loud. When we hit that and Timmons scored, this place was electric." Forrest played like Williamson
The consensus around the UK defense entering the season held that the Wildcats' strength would be on the defensive line bookended by Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, while the secondary had an injection of talent spearheaded by junior-college transfer A.J. Stamps.
For their part Dupree and Stamps both had interceptions on Saturday, but the UK defense was anchored by junior linebacker Josh Forrest.
The middle linebacker entered the season facing a tall task: replacing Avery Williamson, who became the face of the program and an All-SEC selection in his final two years at UK and now plies his trade on Sundays for the Tennessee Titans.
Forrest, like Williamson last year, is currently the team leader in tackles, but his master class performance came against South Carolina.
The Paducah, Ky., native totaled a career-high 15 tackles, the most by a UK player since Williamson had 15 tackles in 2013 vs. Louisville. And his big game was the second double-digit tackle game of the season, with the other having come in another big SEC game, as he totaled 10 against Florida.
The trend for Forrest bodes well for a UK defense, which didn't play great, but did enough to win. SEC East ... contenders?
Saturday's result was, in a word, crazy, and the manner in which it occurred fit every bit of that description.
But perhaps the wildest development from Kentucky's fourth win of the season, given the trajectory of the program less than two years ago, was what the victory meant in terms of this season.
Believe it or not, at 4-1 (2-1 in conference play) the Wildcats are right in the thick of the race for the SEC East title.
Yes, a Kentucky team that went 2-10 each of the past two seasons, finds itself just one game behind first-place Missouri (4-1; 1-0 SEC) in the SEC East loss column.
Of course, UK has five conference games remaining (three of them against current AP Top 25 teams in addition to a trip to newly unranked LSU), but the Wildcats are also a triple-overtime game away from being 5-0.
How far UK has come in a short time, and how close UK is to perfection so far this season is not lost on UK's signal caller.
"We are extremely close to being 5-0, which would be unbelievable," Patrick Towles said. "We're 4-1, which is unbelievable. We're going to move forward, we're going to win a lot of games. The tenacity and the passion that we showed tonight is going to win us a lot of football games.
"We're definitely in (the SEC East title race) now. Definitely no question. We're there to stay for sure."
It was just as competitive as Craig Skinner expected it would be.
In a matchup of top-25 teams, Kentucky and Texas A&M went toe to toe in the second and third sets. There were a combined eight deuce points in the two sets and the Wildcats had to fight off five set points in the third.
The heat, in other words, was on.
"There's a lot of pressure when you're down and trying to have to knot it up each time you have to side out," head coach Craig Skinner said. "It's about making plays."
UK was able to make them.
The No. 13 Cats (14-2, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) battled relentlessly and finished off a win over the No. 21 Aggies (11-4, 3-1 SEC) in a match that was much closer than the final 3-0 score line. In so doing, UK swept its first home weekend in SEC play to stretch its winning streak to eight.
Lauren O'Conner (17 kills) and Shelby Workman (15 kills) headlined the UK attack, while Anni Thomasson doubled her previous career best with six aces to lead a strong Wildcat service game.
"It was huge," Skinner said. "You saw their offense, how fast it is and how difficult it is to defend. We were able to get them out of system most of the night until the end of the third set. And then they just--kill after kill after kill. So were able to get them out of system to get the lead there at the end and then make a play for match point. Serving's a big deal when you play against offensive teams."
An even bigger deal was the focus UK showed on defense. The Aggies hit a solid .295 for the match, but none of their 54 kills came easily. The Cats repeatedly made hustle and kept balls alive that seemed destined for the floor. Really, that's become the hallmark of this UK team.
"I've said it from the beginning: This is a very competitive group individually and they are not satisfied with the ball dropping within their range and they go for it until it drops," Skinner said.
For more than three-and-a-half hours, Kentucky and South Carolina went back and forth.
There were too many momentum swings to count. There were two separate 21-0 runs in the second half. There was a perfectly executed trick play touchdown. The Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 62,135 was into it from start to finish, but it was a long night nonetheless.
No moments passed more slowly than those that immediately preceded the biggest play of the game.
UK had just pulled into a tie and was looking to prevent a game-winning Gamecock drive in the final minutes. Facing a second and 10 from his own 20, Dylan Thompson dropped back to throw and fired a pass that was deflected at the line of scrimmage.
For the next 1.9 seconds, hearts stopped.
"I saw it floating up in the air," Mark Stoops said. "Felt like it was up there for five minutes. I was hoping somebody would run underneath it."
Enter Bud Dupree.
"The ball came down and it seemed like it took forever," Dupree said. "I thought somebody was right behind my waiting to tackle me as soon as I caught it."
Dupree snared the ball at the six-yard line, showing off the short-burst speed that makes him an elite NFL Draft prospect. No one was catching him, not until he got into that end zone for the first pick-six of his football career, high school or college.
In spite of the magnitude of the moment - the play would send UK to a 45-38 win and touch off a mad field-rushing scene - Dupree could only think about one thing: Don't pick up a penalty. He had a celebration in mind for his first-career touchdown, but his better judgment wouldn't allow him to break it out.
"I couldn't do it," Dupree said. "Everybody started running at me and I was thinking, 'What if I get a penalty and they take it back?' I just wanted to play it smart and make sure we won the game."
Dupree wouldn't have had much time to get that celebration in anyway. Quickly following him into the end zone were his teammates, who piled on top of the star defensive end/linebacker in celebration.
"I think what made me most tired was getting up from everybody being on top of me," Dupree said. "I lost a lot of energy trying to get up with everybody on top of me. I was tired on the next series just because of that. It's a great feeling."
That sweet exhaustion would not have been possible had it not been for Mike Douglas, who made the play before the big play.
The senior defensive tackle occupied the right guard as Dupree rushed Thompson from the outside. Sitting near the line of scrimmage, Douglas jumped as Thompson threw and reacted in time to swat the ball into the air with his right hand.
"I saw the ball leave his hands and I tried to get my hands up in time," Douglas said. "I'm glad I did."
After Dupree and Douglas combined to give UK the lead, it was another senior who make the game-clinching defensive play.
Just a touchdown away from likely sending the game to overtime, South Carolina had a first and 15 at its own 46. Thompson dropped to pass and fired high over the middle into the waiting arms of safety Ashely Lowery, who made UK's third interception of the game and ninth of the season (fourth nationally).
"Those guys, Mike Douglas, Bud Dupree and Ashley Lowery, guys that kind of bought in to what we're doing here made big plays tonight," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "It's something that was very rewarding."
The night may have ended rewardingly, but UK had more than its share of frustrating moments, especially on defense.
South Carolina jumped all over the Cats early, running at will and building a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. UK would stiffen on defense and eventually take a 24-17 in the third quarter on a reverse pass from Patrick Towles to Ryan Timmons out of the Wildcat formation, but the Gamecocks once again asserted themselves.
South Carolina scored 21 unanswered to take a 38-24 lead, drawing the ire of Stoops and eliciting a sideline talking-to he said wasn't fit for his postgame press conference.
"Quit looking around for guys to make plays; you make a play," Stoops said, recalling his message in tamer terms. "That's where I started challenging them. That's where I had enough. Quit looking around. Quit looking for a call. Somebody dig in and make a play."
More than one somebody did just that.
South Carolina piled up 38 points and 500 yards of total offense, but the Gamecocks were shut out on their final three drives and managed just 34 yards. Mike Davis (183 yards, three touchdowns) was dominant in the ground game and South Carolina had 282 yards rushing as a team, but the Cats got the stops when they were most needed.
"I think shows how resilient we are as a team, especially as a defense, after rebounding after we played horrible for pretty much the whole game," Douglas said.
To Douglas, that ability to overcome adversity all comes down to a team chemistry he says is the best he's seen at UK.
"It's an open floor for communication," Douglas said. "That's what really helps because there's nobody built up, mad because he made a play, mad because he missed it. We get it out on the sideline and then we go back and move on to the next play."
Jojo Kemp carried 17 times for 131 yards and three touchdowns in UK's upset of South Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Understandably, Jojo Kemp was tired.
On a potential game-tying fourth quarter drive against South Carolina, Kemp was carrying the load for Kentucky but he needed a break. He signaled as much to the sideline, but the Wildcats couldn't afford not to have him in the game.
And on the very next play, Kemp unleashed his longest run of the night.
"He put the team on his back," Stoops said. "He was trying to come out of the game once. I said, 'That's it; no more. You stay in there, grind it out.' And he did."
After that 43-yard run out of the Wildcat formation, Kemp stayed down on the left sideline. Completely exhausted, he finally got up and limped off after cheers of "Jojo, Jojo!" rang through Commonwealth Stadium. He needed only a one-play break before reentering and scoring from five yards out to tie the game.
"I ain't gonna lie, I was gassed," Kemp said. "But I had to lay it on the line for my team. We've been working so hard and I've been wanting to show the fans what our hard work has been doing so far and it finally paid off."
It paid off in the form of a 45-38 victory, one that sent UK (4-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) to a second consecutive SEC win. Star defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree scored the game-winning touchdown, snaring a pass fellow senior Mike Douglas batted into the air and returning it six yards.
"Bud is a heck of an athlete," Kemp said. "Bud, he's great. He's a great leader and we kind of did this for the seniors tonight."
The seniors may have been the inspiration, but it was a sophomore who carried the heaviest load.
Kentucky, having already overcome a 14-0 first-half deficit to take a 24-17 lead, found itself trailing 38-24 when Mike Davis sprinted 26 yards for a touchdown with 11:45 left. It was at that point that most teams would turn to the pass to make a comeback, but the Cats went the other direction.
"I really liked what we were doing coming into the game," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I thought we were right on schedule with our plan and I knew if we just stayed with it. ... I knew if we just stayed the course I felt like we were playing well enough up front that we could get back in the game."
Brown would call on Patrick Towles - who played a solid game, completing 20-of-29 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown - to throw just one pass as the Cats mounted a furious rally. In fact, Towles was split out wide more often than not in the formation that's come to known as the "WildKemp."
"I'll take it," Towles said. "I probably didn't expect that we'd do it that much, but if it's productive why go away from it?"
Productive might be an understatement.
Kemp ran 17 times for a career-high 131 yards to go with three touchdowns. In the fourth quarter alone, he piled up 116 yards and two scores on 14 carries.
"I felt like at the end of the game if we got in it we could get rolling," Brown said. "I thought the fourth quarter having success on first down was huge for us. I really felt like we had enough time to stay in it and we did. Jojo did a great job. He's going to get a lot of the credit, but we blocked really well up front."
Kemp doesn't disagree.
"My o-line, they were out there hungry, fighting for every yard I got," Kemp said. "So I gotta give the praise to my o-line."
The Wildcat formation has become a mainstay of the UK offense over the last two weeks. Against Vanderbilt, the Cats used it to salt away a win. Against South Carolina, it was the means to a thrilling comeback.
"What happens is you bring the motion, so you gotta defend the motion because that's two of our better players, whether it was Javess (Blue) or (Ryan) Timmons coming in, you gotta defend the sweep," Brown said. "And then all the motion, the defenders gotta move, can't play it downhill as much. And Jojo's got a really good feel for it. You have to be patient."
Brown has been patient in his Wildcat play-calling as well, keeping an ace of a trick play up his sleeve until the first drive of the second half.
In the first, UK scored both its touchdowns off Wildcat looks, first with Kemp and later on a 38-yard burst by Braylon Heard. The trap set, Brown called for an end around to Blue off the Wildcat and reverse to Towles. Timmons wide open by 25 yards, Towles threw deep for a 48-yard touchdown.
"That was the first trick play I think we've hit it right since I've been here," Brown said. "We used to hit those all the time at Tech and Troy. So that was fun. It was a big play in the game. You talk about--that place was loud. When we hit that and Timmons scored, this place was electric."
It was even more electric after Kemp's final three carries of the night.
After Dupree's interception return, the UK defense came up with yet another stop when Ashely Lowery picked off a Dylan Thompson pass. Needing just one first down to kill the final 1:31, Brown unsurprisingly called Kemp's number.
With some help from a South Carolina offsides penalty, the Cats picked up that first down with three carries by Kemp. When the official measurement revealed that Kemp had reached the line to gain, it touched off a raucous field-rushing situation.
"I gave a lot (of high-fives), but I was just trying to get my breathing," Kemp said. "I was gassed."
He had enough energy to make a short walk in the postgame locker room when his coach summoned him.
"Jojo, so proud of Jojo," Stoops said. "I think that was, other than some special guests we have sometimes when we honor somebody, that was the first game ball I gave out tonight. Called JoJo up and gave him a game ball. Because just sheer determination that he had."
College football is an emotional game and Mark Stoops is an emotional guy.
Anyone who has seen him yell at an official after a bad call -- and seen his facial expressions in said tirades -- can attest to that.
And still he'd never experienced as a head coach the emotional ups and downs, and ultimately highs, that he did in Saturday's 45-38 comeback win over South Carolina.
"It's hard to describe how much pride you feel for the team, just for everybody in our organization," Stoops said. "You know to fight back through that adversity. To start down 14 points, and be down 14 in the fourth ... it just felt uphill the whole game. Felt frustrating."
But who could blame the UK coach, who after not winning a Southeastern Conference game during his debut season last year now has won two in a row, and has his team very much in the thick of the race for the SEC East title, for getting a bit overwhelmed after the game?
The manner in which Stoops' team won, coming back from not one, but two 14-point deficits, including that score line in the fourth quarter would be enough to overwhelm just about anyone.
"It's really hard to put into words," Stoops said. "I think just I feel very proud of the whole group and all the work that we put in. And it was emotional. I felt overwhelmed at times when I was on that field. It happened so quick.
"I was frustrated a lot of the night. But just very grateful, I think, is the thing that comes to mind and appreciate the guys in that locker room."
And so after celebrating on-field postgame with thousands of members of the Big Blue Nation, talking to his team and giving away the game ball to a current player for the first time in his career, Stoops soaked in just how much Saturday's win meant.
He apparently enjoyed the moment so much that he didn't want it to end. So he actually extended his press conference to two extra questions because he was "enjoying it too much."
Perhaps adding just a measure of the feel-good factor to the win was who was standing across from him on the opposite sideline. The relationship between the Stoops and Spurrier families has been well-documented as Mark's brother Bob -- now the head coach at Oklahoma -- was the defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier on the staffs that built Florida into one of the nation's premier programs in the 1990s.
The frustration Stoops spoke so much about postgame was in many ways attributable to Spurrier's coaching prowess.
"Coach Spurrier, I have so much respect for offensively, and he went to some--not different things, because he's run all those sets before, but he featured them and kept us out and kept us really off balance," Stoops said. "And it was very frustrating. That's why he's a Hall of Fame coach and won an awful lot of football games."
But the gravity of the moment was not lost on Stoops, and it moved him enough to engage in a time-tested football tradition, which the second-year coach had never engaged in before tonight. Perhaps he never had a big enough win to do it, or perhaps he had never had a player deserving enough of the honor.
But Jojo Kemp's three-touchdown, 131-yard game, which also included a big third-down conversion with barely a minute remaining, was worthy.
"JoJo , (I'm) so proud of JoJo," Stoops said. "I think that was, other than some special guests we have sometimes when we honor somebody, that was the first game ball I gave out tonight. Called JoJo up and gave him a game ball.
"Because just sheer determination that he had. He put the team on his back. He was trying to come out of the game once. I said: That's it; no more. You stay in there, grind it out. And he did.
Morgan Bergren had 48 assists and six kills in UK's four-set win over Alabama on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Through two sets, UK was in control.
In a matchup of two teams that had won a combined 15 matches in a row, the Wildcats charged to a 2-0 lead over Alabama. Kentucky, however, hit a lull in the third set and the Crimson Tide took advantage.
After that, it was all about the Cats getting back to what had staked them to a lead to begin with.
"I think we just had to pick up our intensity and trust what we do and stay aggressive," setter Morgan Bergren said. "That's one thing we talked about in the locker room before the game, is just constant aggression on them. I think we lost that a little bit in the third game and finally got it back in the fourth game."
On the strength of that aggressiveness, No. 13 UK (13-2, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) got the win in its conference home opener. The Cats extended their winning streak to seven with the victory and ended a nine-game streak for the Tide (14-3, 2-1 SEC).
"I expected a match comparable to sets three and four the whole night," head coach Craig Skinner said. "We ran away with it in set two but I didn't think that was normal in a situation like that. Just physically we earned our points. Alabama didn't give them to us and that's probably the most pleasing thing so far tonight."
Most of the time, when the Cats did earn their points in a four-set win, Bergren was in the middle of it.
The junior assisted on 48 of UK's 98 points, adding six kills to boot. She was at her best when it mattered most, leading the Cats after Alabama appeared poised to force a decisive fifth set by taking a 19-15 lead in the fourth.
"She did a nice job," Skinner said. "She I think lost her way a little bit in set three and then really found her groove in set four. That's pretty important under pressure who you go to and who you find to get swings. She did a great job."
Bergren's favorite target on Friday night was Shelby Workman, who totaled 19 kills and hit .459. Lauren O'Conner added 15 kills and Anni Thomasson 10, statistics indicative of the way Bergren spreads the ball around.
"I'm comfortable setting anyone," Bergren said. "I feel like all of our attackers carry a strong presence and anyone is available to go to at any time. Tonight Shelby was really good for us and picked us up and used the block really well to her advantage."
Bergren is in her second season as UK's full-time starter at setter, but the offense she's running this season looks much different than it did in 2013. The Cats, as you'd expect, have had to adjust to life without All-Americans Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan.
"Early on I think I was a little bit hesitant running the middle and they've proven day in and day out in practice that they're up and they're ready and they're ready to go expecting the ball," Bergren said.
With Bergren looking more comfortable by the match, UK is playing its best volleyball of the season early in SEC play.
"I think you really start to understand how important good setting is," Skinner said. "We're averaging more kills per set than we have in three years. A lot of that has to do with your setter and good decision-making and getting one-on-ones. She's very good at what she does."
Entering a tough test against No. 21 Texas A&M at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, Bergren sees one more area a confident UK team needs to address.
"Right now everything feels good," Bergren said. "Every now and then we hit that little lull in either game two or game three and that's something we have to improve on and not get too comfortable and relaxed and let the other teams come back on us. Other than that, I don't think we have any doubts going into any of the matches."
Alex Poythress starred for Kentucky on the Big Blue Bahamas tour in August. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are Kentucky basketball's odd couple.
Poythress is the quiet one. With the media, he's polite but reserved. On the court, he lets his game do the talking.
Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, will never be mistaken for shy. From his candid, often off-the-wall answers in interviews to his tweets all the way down to his clothes, his personality comes through.
The contrast might make the two juniors seem unlikely to share a bond, but you won't find two players on the team closer than Poythress and Cauley-Stein. In fact, it's their differences that bring them together.
"He's more outgoing, talking, doing a lot of stuff," Poythress said. "I'm more laidback, chill. That's probably why we get along."
They get along so well that when John Calipari learned Cauley-Stein would bypass the NBA Draft, he immediately figured Poythress would do the same.
The word "brother" comes up often when Cauley-Stein and Poythress talk about one another. The two suitemates also agree that their ages (Cauley-Stein is the elder by 19 days) belie the true nature of their relationship.
"Even though he's younger than me, he's like the older brother," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm the kind of dude that wants to go outside and see everybody and always on the move, and he's always the dude that's like, I'm going to stay in the room and watch a movie and do grown-people stuff and I'm always trying to experience all the fun stuff."
For all his "grown-people stuff" off the court, Poythress has taken his time blossoming as a player on it. Given his personality, that makes some sense.
Through two college seasons, Poythress has alternated in equal measure between showing flashes of his ability to dominate and a propensity to fade into the background. There have been games like his 20-point outburst against Duke as a freshman and outings like the one just two weeks later at Notre Dame when he attempted just one shot.
It should come as no surprise that Poythress' longest sustained stretch of consistent play coincided with UK's run to the national championship game. Even still, Poythress was but a supporting cast member, providing a versatile defensive presence, rebounding and the occasional jaw-dropping play.
Once the run was over, he had a decision to make. In spite of what Coach Cal may have thought after Cauley-Stein announced his return, Poythress made the call on his own.
"I talked to the coaches, talked to my mom, talked to my dad, my sisters and my family and I just weighed my options," Poythress said. "I feel like I made the right decision to come back."
Based on early returns, Poythress appears poised to prove himself right.
Showing off what assistant John Robic called a "rebuilt engine," Poythress averaged 11.8 points - tops on the team - and 5.7 rebounds on a six-game Bahamas tour. The raw numbers aren't far off from his production through his first two seasons, but he posted them playing just 18.8 minutes per game on UK's starting platoon.
Anyone who has spent much time watching Poythress during his UK career doesn't need to look at any numbers to know the player on the floor this August was different.
"I was coming with the mindset that I'm playing good these games," Poythress said. "Coming in with that mindset, I'm going at people, making a statement really."
Physically, Poythress is still the imposing 6-foot-8, nearly 240-pound specimen he's always been. He still wears No. 22 on his jersey and a stoic expression on his face too. Inside is where Poythress has changed.
"Probably mentally," Poythress said. "Just being more focused. Mentally, being more prepared. I've been here two years. I know what to expect. Just going in and make sure I do it."
The scary thing for UK's opponents this season is Calipari still sees room for improvement. He knows the platoon system presents some unique challenges he'll have to navigate with Poythress to make sure his growth continues, but the progress the Clarksville, Tenn., has made so far is indisputable.
"He may be a guy that needs more minutes just to get more comfortable playing because, you know, that's the biggest thing with him is the comfort level in his game," Calipari said. "But, you know ... there are things he has to be able to do to be special. Because he has, you know, he's just getting so much better. ... I can't even believe he's the same player."
His evolution as a player has been accompanied by growth as a leader. Poythress is the first to admit that getting in the face of a younger teammate doesn't come naturally to him, but he also knows he'll be called on to do just that given his experience playing on one team that was bounced in the first round of the NIT and another that came up a win shy of a title.
"You can be the most laidback person off the court, but on the court you gotta speak up, you gotta be more vocal," Poythress said. "I'm doing a better job of that."
Coach Cal has had players who were able to do that the moment they arrived on campus. For even those who can't, it's still the assumption that true freshmen should be able to dominate on the court from day one.
Poythress is a reminder of how unfair that expectation is and that deviating from the one-and-done path doesn't signal failure.
"I'm a junior now," Poythress said. "It just takes people different times. Ain't nothing wrong with that. There's a lot of great players in the pros that played in college for three years. You're not really trying to worry about that. You're just trying to do what you can, however long it takes you. Just trying to take baby steps, really."
On the heels of a "really good" Wednesday, UK continued its new game-week habit of holding a lighter practice on Thursday.
With a matchup with South Carolina just two days away, the Wildcats had another productive day.
"Guys were sharp, so looking forward to Saturday," Stoops said. "Guys are locked in and ready to go, so we're anticipating a big day."
A big day and a big blackout crowd.
UK will play its first home night game of the season on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. With the buzz surrounding the Wildcats and their 3-1 start, the biggest crowd in the Stoops era is expected.
"I'm excited," Stoops said. "I'm looking forward to the atmosphere Saturday, absolutely. Like I've said many times, we appreciate the support we've been getting. We're trying to do our part and build a program that everybody's proud of and we're looking forward to getting some of that home-field advantage, absolutely."
It's Stoops' hope that Cats can use that home-field advantage to avoid the slow start that befell them last season against the Gamecocks. UK fell behind 21-0 in the game before rallying and nearly pulling off the upset in a 35-28 road loss.
"As I said earlier in the week, last year -- we really didn't fare so well last year down there," Stoops said. "They started extremely fast. We have to do a better job at home of trying to withstand that. I think everybody would like to have a fast start, so we've got to be ready to go, that's for sure."
As big as the game may be, Stoops isn't thinking much about the talk of UK making waves in the Southeastern Conference East division race with a win.
"It's truly one game," Stoops said. "It's another game, it's the next game. If you take care of your business then we can have that conversation as we move forward. But we're a long way from there. We're still taking it one day at a time, one game at a time. Like I said, I think we're excited and guys are ready to play and really had a pretty good week of practice. So we're just worried about our preparation and how we go out and execute and how we go play."
On the injury front, Stoops expects Zach West and Cole Mosier to be available for the game after missing last week. However, wide receivers Jeff Badet and Alex Montgomery will not play.
Andrew and Aaron Harrison will anchor the UK backcourt in their sophomore season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Alone they may have faltered. Together they were strengthened.
For as long as they can remember - really since they day they were born - the Harrison twins have been there for each other, by each other's side through everything they've done. They rose through the basketball ranks together, blossomed into young men together and decided to go to the same college together.
They've done everything you'd expect twins to do -- as one.
But their relationship last year came in handy when they faced the most difficult year of their lives.
As the point guard and floor general of the team, Andrew Harrison probably took more heat than Aaron did last season when Kentucky failed to meet regular-season expectations, but both felt the brunt of UK's struggles and - fairly or unfairly - took the blame when there was plenty of it to go around.
"We struggled," Andrew Harrison said in preseason interview last month. "It was tough, but at the same time it makes you a man."
The Harrison twins arrived on campus last year heralded as saviors following the highly disappointing 2012-13 NIT season. Their tough-minded approach and distaste for losing were supposed to be two key character traits that wouldn't let recent history repeat itself.
In everyone's mind, the twins wouldn't tolerate anything like what happened the season. As a sign read in Rupp Arena during the 2013 NCAA Tournament that UK wasn't included in, "Keep calm, the twins are coming."
The underlying message of the sign was loaded with expectations. What no fan wanted to realize is even the twins weren't ready to carry the burden of redemption.
Part of it was because they still had some growing up to do and part of it was they were freshmen. But overlooked in all of UK's regular-season struggles a season ago was just how significant the twins' absence during summer workouts was to the team's overall development.
John Calipari didn't want to make a big deal out of it at the time - and what coach would when you're trying to build confidence in your team - but it stunted the growth of the twins and the Wildcats.
"Killed them," Calipari said. "Killed them. And what it killed was their conditioning. It took them until the middle of January to really--think about the play--couldn't run back, didn't want to keep playing so they'd do a body language thing. And then they'd look, is anybody watching? Because they were trying to stop. ... It was a killer for them."
By midseason, people were calling them busts. They were slip-sliding down NBA Draft boards faster than a bobsled on ice.
"Andrew was really criticized last year," Aaron Harrison said. "I think one of the most criticized players in the country, so we just had to stick together."
Easier said than done.
Among the biggest criticisms the Harrison twins' faced was their body language. When things went south or something didn't go their way, they were prone to react negatively with scowls on their faces and noticeable defeat in their shoulders. They let one play affect the next, and sometimes it was contagious to their teammates.
That criticism of the Harrison twins, Calipari will tell you, was fair.
What wasn't fair was the association it connected them to. Just because they were reacting negatively on the court, some people began to question their character. Unfairly, some people labeled them as bad kids.
"I feel like people just put that out there before," Andrew Harrison said. "All you can do is prove them wrong and just play basketball. You can't really focus on what other people say about you."
But truth be told, who wouldn't be bothered by that? Under the strict guidance of their parents, the Harrisons were brought up with impeccable manners that belied the bad-boy rumors.
The Harrison twins. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Soft spoken as they can be, you would be hard-pressed to have a conversation with them without hearing "yes sir" or "yes ma'am" a half-dozen times.
"It's my parents," Andrew Harrison said of their manners. "They instilled it in me. I can't help it. Sometimes people say, 'Don't do that,' but I can't help it. I have to say it to everybody."
Knowing that side of his twin guards and hearing some of the stuff he heard from outsiders last year irked Calipari.
"What happens with some of you guys," Coach Cal said, "is you have an opinion and then you've got to prove that opinion right, so you'll never change. 'Here's my opinion.' Well, are you not watching? Hmm. 'That's my opinion. I'm not watching. I'm not. Then let me tell you why it's right.' So those two have been hit with that some. Like, what are you watching? How can you say that? 'Well, 'cause it's what I said six months ago and I'm sticking with it. That's my story.' But the good news for them is hopefully they're comfortable and they know we have your back."
They had each other's backs as well.
"We both had some low points last year and we kept each other going," Aaron Harrison said.
Andrew Harrison said their relationship was not only crucial to their eventual success last season, it strengthened and even changed their relationship with one another.
"It changed just because of the pressure and the microscope you're under when you go to Kentucky," Andrew Harrison said. "Now that you're used to it, you can relax and play."
Leaning on one another during the difficult times helped them amend the narrative of last season and their outlook going forward. They hung in long enough to see their season turn around in the postseason.
Both flourished during UK's NCAA Tournament run. Aaron Harrison obviously stole the headlines with the game-winning shots, but Andrew's turnaround was just as dramatic. Calipari instituted what he called a "tweak" in Andrew Harrison's game, and suddenly he became a different point guard in March.
"Most point guards, if you're a freshman point guard, you come in with two juniors, a senior and a freshman. He was trying to come in and play with all freshmen that didn't know any more than he did," Aaron Harrison said of his brother's responsibilities. "So it was really tough. I mean, it's not really fair, but everything's not fair."
It's worth noting that most of Calipari's previous point guards had to go through similar growing pains before finding their stride.
"I've always said the point guard for Coach Cal is the hardest to play," said walk-on Brian Long, who seen and watched a lot of solid point-guard play during his three-plus seasons at UK. "I think (Andrew Harrison) coming back for his sophomore year, I think he can take off."
Of course, Andrew Harrison wouldn't have been able to keep the development going without his brother's timely shots, the magnitude of which Aaron didn't come to grips with until several weeks after. Only now does he realize that he'll forever be a part of UK lore for what he did during that run in March.
"You sit back and you think about all that and you think about hitting the big shot like that in a big game, it's really unreal," Aaron Harrison said. "The shots are cool and all, but we were celebrating because we had another game to play. We didn't win the last one, so, I mean, it's not really the way we wanted to finish it. I mean, yeah, I still have some good memories about the shots that I made, but if we would've won our last game it wouldn't have even compared to that feeling."
Now, after the way the two played in the postseason and the way they built off the momentum during the Big Blue Bahamas tour, the Harrisons' stock is on the rise again.
In Nassau, they seemed to carry themselves in a different manner, as if this is their team. The slimmed-down twins looked more comfortable, more confident and better equipped to lead.
"I feel like I'm one of the leaders on this team and I can definitely lead this team in the right direction," Andrew Harrison said. "I have some experience and stuff like that, so I feel like the guys can listen to me. I know what they're going through and I see stuff on the court that I can help them out with."
Andrew Harrison's teammates notice a different vibe with him this year.
"It's crazy what one year can do for someone," sophomore Derek Willis said. "Definitely he's gotten better. He's more vocal. There's just so many little things that people don't notice that he does. When he's bringing the ball up it's not, 'I'm bringing the ball up.' It's running up, then stopping, then getting into our set. He's leading."
Ironically, given how they leaned on each other last year, Calipari would like to see a little bit of separation of the two going forward. The way he sees it, if they are going to make individual careers for themselves in the NBA, they will have to show NBA personnel that they can do it without one other's help.
"I told those two (for pickup games), 'Don't always play with each other. Play opposite,' " Coach Cal said. "You don't want to be labeled that you have to be on the same team. You've had guys like that before. It hurts them."
Calipari was just as surprised as everyone else when the Harrison twins decided to come back for their sophomore seasons - he learned of the news while he was sitting on a plane and getting ready to head out of town - but now that they're back, he's not ready to settle for the progress they made at the end of last year.
He believes they can and will get even better.
"They're still growing right now," Calipari said. "You still have to coach them and guide them. They, you know, they still have some habits that they flow back to when it gets crazy and nutty. But I'm just - they're great kids. They're both great kids. They're both, you know, in the best shape right now they've been in, but I'm telling them it's not good enough. They've got to get to another level."