After losing the second set of Friday's match to Georgia, allowing the Bulldogs to tie the Wildcats 1-1, No. 17 Kentucky headed to the locker room in desperate need of adjustment.
By the time the ball was served to begin set three, they did just that.
"I feel like as a team, the first and second game were one mentality," said senior Lauren O'Conner. "We came in at the break and just changed everything."
Allowing four team blocks from UGA to UK's zero in set two, Kentucky flipped the script in the third set and blocked four Georgia shots without giving up one of their own. The Cats' hitting percentage rose from a dreary .239 to a dominating .480, while the Dogs' attack dropped all the way down to .156 in set three.
"We challenged our team to be better defensively in sets three and four," said head coach Craig Skinner. "Obviously, our defense and blocking were a big difference in those sets. I'm just proud of the mentality we had to close out the match."
After a 25-16 win in set three, Kentucky (21-4, 10-2 SEC) cruised to a 25-13 victory in the fourth and final set. O'Conner proved to be the offensive catalyst the Cats needed, posting 21 kills by herself, just one shy of her career high, and not a single error.
"I feel like (the adjustment in the third set) just helped me step up even more, because my team was just fighting," said O'Conner. "I wanted to step up and make the plays so we could come out on top."
O'Conner, one of only three seniors on the Kentucky roster, has been playing some of the best volleyball of her career just as it comes to an end. With only three home games remaining before the NCAA Tournament, the Taylor Mill, Ky. native's playing days are glaringly numbered.
"(O'Conner) is playing with a ton of confidence," said Skinner. "She knows what shot to hit at the right time, and sees the block and the court really well."
Earning All-SEC Freshman team honors in 2011, O'Conner saw action in 97 of 98 matches--recording 67 total starts--during her first three seasons in Lexington. Fast-forward through her illustrious career to 2014, and O'Conner still finds a way to impress her coach with each passing game.
"Before, she had a cross-court shot, and now she has every shot in the book," said Skinner. "Her cross-court off-speed is doing a really nice job."
Looking ahead to Sunday's match with the defending SEC champion Missouri Tigers, O'Conner chooses not to revel in her spectacular 21-kill performance or her .512 hitting percentage.
"Just take it as any other game," said O'Conner. "(I) just try to do the best that I can on that night, and (take) the opportunities that are given to me."
No. 17 Kentucky will face Mizzou (15-12, 6-6 SEC) Sunday at noon at Memorial Coliseum. The match will be televised live on ESPN's SEC Network.
On top of being a respected coach and recruiter, Rohrssen has famously dabbled as an actor, starring alongside the likes of Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey.
Nonetheless, one subject escaped him in school.
"You know, for some people, even like myself, chemistry was the hardest subject," Rohrssen said.
The same is true, though not in quite so literal a sense, for the Kentucky basketball team. The Wildcats, set for the second of two exhibitions on Sunday at 7 p.m. against Georgetown (Ky.), are still in the process of figuring out exactly how they fit together.
John Calipari knows UK, at least to start the season, will operate in a two-platoon system. Last Sunday, the Cats dominated Pikeville by sharing time in two groups, the first featuring Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns and the second Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson.
Whether those platoons remain the same is still a question mark.
"It's Friday now and we've still got two more days and maybe three more practices to go before that," Rohrssen said. "So it could change; it could be the same."
In that victory over Pikeville, all 10 members of the two platoons played at least 16 minutes, and none more than 20. The system calls for that kind of balance on paper, but the coaching staff doesn't expect for it to play out that way when the season heats up.
"It's still to be determined," Rohrssen said. "I think Cal might've spoken to you guys already; he said it's not communism. That was kind of his phrase about it, where those that will produce are going to get more time or find themselves with the opportunity for more time."
Taking on the in-state Tigers, boasting a 3-0 record and a No. 8 ranking in NAIA Division I, will arm UK with 40 minutes more of data to evaluate the platoons. Just as importantly, it's another chance to adjust to the game-day routine.
"One of the things that's nice about college basketball is you get a chance to get out there, simulate game days, go through a shootaround or a walk-through in the morning the day of a game, have your pregame meal with your team, just to get in a rhythm and get comfortable, and especially for the new guys," Rohrssen said. "... So it's good to get some of those exhibitions under your belt, and this will be another step towards our improvement." Booker getting better
Devin Booker. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
Though he showcased his talent at points, Devin Booker was relatively quiet during UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour.
The 6-foot-6 guard averaged just 5.2 points and shot 34.4 percent from the field, but Rohrssen pinpointed Booker as the freshman who has improved the most since.
"Well, one guy that's really improving rapidly and on a day-to-day basis is Devin Booker," Rohrssen said. "He's really made some very good strides since he's been here on campus, like most of the freshmen."
Those strides were apparent last Sunday, as Booker scored 16 points and had three assists in 16 minutes of UK's exhibition win over Pikeville, leading the second platoon in scoring in the process. Booker did his damage in a variety ways, showing the dead-eye shooting for which he's known in hitting 2-of-4 3-pointers, but also running the floor and scoring at the rim.
"He's just finding things a bit more comfortably now, getting up and down the court a lot quicker, using some of his athleticism," Rohrssen said. "He moves well without the basketball. He's releasing his shot a lot quicker."
Rohrssen talks recruiting
When he first committed to using the two-platoon system in the preseason, Coach Cal said it could represent a "watershed moment" should it work as planned.
By making it work, he said UK could change the face of college basketball just like in 2010 when five Wildcats were drafted in the first round by proving so many talented players could coexist and succeed both as a team and individually.
But for now, UK is sticking to a more familiar script on the trail.
"Recruiting, these guys have been very receptive," Rohrssen said. "It's nice to be ranked No. 1 in the polls. It's a nice way to have a conversation, go into somebody's home."
Pitching the platoons, according to Rohrssen, is premature. Could UK have a similarly constructed roster with 12 players deserving of time next season? Sure. Is it a guarantee? No.
"I mean, that's to unfold next season," Rohrssen said. "If we're talking about this season, Kentucky is very well received no matter where you go and who you speak with it. It's nice to have that royal blue UK on your chest when you're walking into a high school or a home."
Even as spoke of high hopes for the season, Matthew Mitchell was quick to point out it would take time for Kentucky to round into offensive form.
For that reason, he was unsure what to expect as the Wildcats played their lone exhibition vs. Pikeville.
"To be honest with you, I was a little concerned what it might look like offensively if it got into a half-court game," Mitchell said.
Fortunately for UK, that rarely happened on Thursday night.
UK Hoops raced paced visiting Pikeville both on the floor and on the scoreboard, 141-63. The Cats shot 56-of-89 (62.9 percent) from the field in putting together an offensive night that would have eclipsed the school record for points in a game had it been a regular-season affair.
"I was just happy to see them run. No matter who the opponent is--I hope Pikeville has a great season, but we just really weren't concerned with the opponent," Mitchell said. "We were just trying to run tonight and I thought they did that really well."
Though the final box score showed just 18 fast-break points, the Cats continually sprinted past the Bears, scoring 52 points off 37 turnovers. Jennifer O'Neill and Alexis Jennings led eight players scoring in double figures with 20 points apiece.
"I think we have potential to be like we were today," O'Neill said. "But the thing that got us into the one hundreds was the fact that everybody was running the floor."
The most impressive statistical performance, however, belonged to Makayla Epps. The sophomore flirted with a triple-double, posting 18 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.
"Honestly, I was completely unaware until I came off the bench and (assistant) Coach Adeniyi (Amadou) was like, 'Oh, two more rebounds,' " Epps said. "And I was like, 'Wow, I've never even been close to 10 rebounds.' Ever, like in my life."
Mitchell, however, was more concerned with the way Epps looked than her stat line.
"I don't even really look at the numbers, just the way she moved out there," Mitchell said.
On that front, Epps is unmistakably a different player than the one who had an up-and-down freshman season.
"That is easy to spot, which is a compliment to her because that shows you hard she's worked," Mitchell said. "She's worked really hard and she just looked super."
Epps, like her teammates, has room for growth though, but that's to be expected with the regular season still eight days away from starting with a Nov. 14 matchup with Appalachian State.
"I thought the players did what they were charged to do tonight," Mitchell said. "We really tried to talk about energy and effort and playing hard. We are a long, long away from being a finished product, but we have worked very hard on our effort and conditioning and running the floor."
On Thursday, Mark Stoops spoke publicly for the final time before UK's Senior Day matchup with No. 17 Georgia. The news from the day was that nickelback Blake McClain and tight end Steven Borden will miss Saturday's game due to injury. Also, quarterback Drew Barker -- redshirting this season -- suffered a knee injury on Tuesday and will miss the next 2-3 weeks. Watch Stoops' comments in full in the video above.
After a season in which coaches and players agreed they fell short of their potential, the UK men's soccer team reconvened.
In returning from the holiday break, the Wildcats discovered their head coach was just a little different.
"I've been extremely demanding," Cedergren said. "I'm not a very nice guy. I'm very impatient and the guys have put up with me and now we're sitting here seeing the end result."
The end result has been a special 2014 season.
Riding a nine-match unbeaten streak, UK (10-3-4, 5-0-2 Conference USA) is set to host its regular-season finale on Friday against Charlotte at 7 p.m. at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex. With the Wildcats sitting a point ahead of the No. 5 49ers, UK can clinch the C-USA regular-season championship with a win or draw.
Though it all comes down to 90 minutes on Senior Night, UK's path to a potential title started back in January with a meaner Cedergren. In spite of being picked sixth in the conference before the season and relying on a roster that features 20 freshmen or sophomores and only two seniors, the Cats have responded to Cedergren's tough coaching and embraced his high expectations.
"We worked a lot with the players becoming problem solvers, being disciplined, selfless, humble and having a UK attitude," Cedergren said. "That means focusing on all the little things, having belief no matter where we go, no matter who we play and whatever happens we do things together."
UK's togetherness has been tested repeatedly this season, first through a challenging early-season schedule that brought two losses in its first three games. The Cats then responded with a 1-0 win at Notre Dame, the defending national champion.
More recently, UK has played four of its last five matches on the road, the only home match coming against defending C-USA champion and ninth-ranked New Mexico. All the Cats have done is win four times and draw once.
Considering all that, playing in what amounts to a conference championship game shouldn't faze this team.
"We have a lot of experience to look back on to prepare us for Friday," Cedergren.
The fact that UK has a defense that's allowed a school-record and conference-best 0.55 goals per match doesn't hurt either.
Cedergren knew junior Callum Irving would be the anchor of the unit, calling his goalkeeper one of the best in the country in the preseason. Irving has been as advertised, but Kaelon Fox, Jordan Wilson, Charlie Reymann and Matt Quick have made the defense elite.
"He's been as good as I know he can be," Cedergren said. "I think what has been exceeding my expectations is the back four, the guys that are in front of Cally."
On offense, UK relies on sophomore Napo Matsoso, who is second on the team with 12 points and consistently leads the Cats in distance covered during games. Cedergren estimated that 80 percent of UK's attacks involve Matsoso in some way.
"As many games as I've watched, I can't say that I've had a better playmaker on a team," Cedergren said. "So Napo is huge for us."
"Friday, we're hoping we can get north of 2,000 people to come out to the game and support us, which is I think very, very doable," Cedergren said.
With a loud crowd behind them, Cedergren and the Cats are out to make a special season historic.
"We've put ourselves in a place where we have everything to play for still," Cedergren said. "We need to finish strong. The Kentucky men's soccer program hasn't won a title since 2004, so it's about time for us to do it again."
Kentucky continued its work ahead of a Senior Day matchup with Georgia on Wednesday. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot left the practice field happy with the Wildcats' effort.
"We had a good day of practice," Eliot said. "Kids were into it, flying around, good and physical. It was a good Wednesday; it's what we're looking for."
The coaching staff is getting what it wants out of practice on the heels of a performance at Missouri that Mark Stoops said was among the most disappointing of his two-year tenure. Unsurprisingly, that drew Stoops' ire in the team's first meeting of the week on Monday.
"It was ugly," senior Bud Dupree said. "Coach Stoops said he was going to give it to us and he did exactly what he said. But we needed that. You need a reality check sometimes."
Dupree certainly would rather have avoided that reality check, but he knows it was necessary.
"At the end of the day, he still cares," Dupree said. "But that shows a lot that he cares that much about us that he really thought we could win the games that we've been losing. It was coming and the time couldn't be at a better point in the season."
With three games remaining and therefore three more chances at gaining bowl eligibility, Eliot says the Cats have "responded well."
"They got the message and they came out in practice all week and have focused on being disciplined and doing the little things right, practiced hard and paid attention to detail," Eliot said.
UK will call on that work on Saturday at noon ET when the No. 17 Bulldogs come to town.
"Georgia is very multiple on offense and they can do a lot of things in a lot of different way with different players," Eliot said. "So you have to prepare for them and be able to defend them in a lot of different looks and versus a lot of different plays. So that's quite a challenge."
The last three weeks have summed up the challenge facing Neal Brown.
To start the stretch, Kentucky's offense was ineffective in a blowout loss at LSU, but the Wildcats bounced back with one of their better efforts in a hard-fought game against No. 1 Mississippi State the next week. What followed was a lackluster performance at Missouri.
Looking to find the form that escaped his team in Columbia, Mo., Brown and his offense have gone back to work.
"We're going to be hard on them all week and probably need to continue being hard on them," Brown said. "Some of that is youth. Some of it is guys just not stepping up and making plays in the moment. We're going to get through it, and we will play better this week and hopefully this will be the last time that we have to talk about consistency."
Naturally, much of the talk after the loss to the Tigers was also about Patrick Towles, who struggled a week after out-producing Heisman frontrunner Dak Prescott. Neither Brown nor Towles is ignoring that the sophomore quarterback needs to improve entering a tough matchup with No. 17 Georgia, but so do the players surrounding him.
"I think he was in a little bit of a fog," Brown said. "I think he recognizes it. I wish there was a magic pill, and for whatever reason, things didn't go real well early, and I don't think he ever really snapped out of it. He was disappointed, I was disappointed. If he would have played better, would we have had a chance? Yes. But a lot of things were out of his control."
Brown and Towles on Tuesday and Mark Stoops on Monday each mentioned a six-step out route that a receiver ran incorrectly on a second-half fourth down as an example of just that.
"We were just really undisciplined at Missouri," Brown said. "It wasn't necessarily 11 guys at once. It was one guy here on a key play, and (then) another guy. On offense -- I think I said this after the game -- you've got to have 11 guys on the same page doing their job. On defense sometimes one tremendous player can go make a play. It just doesn't work that way on offense."
Youth and inexperience may be reasons for UK's fits and starts on offense, but the Cats are refusing to use them as excuses.
"We've just gotta be more consistent as a whole," Towles said. "We've had some really good games; we've had some not-so-good games. We just gotta holistically execute better."
UK took a step in that direction on Tuesday with a solid day of work. The Cats are taking to heart Stoops' message that they need to step up and choose to play disciplined football, regardless of the circumstances.
"This is a tough league," said Towles, who returned to the Nutter Training Facility for interviews on Tuesday after a test. "We're playing great teams every week. So we gotta execute no matter who it's against. We gotta be able to run the ball against big guys and we gotta be able to throw the ball against athletic secondaries."
The Cats don't have to wait long before their next such opponent and Towles and the Cats are hard at work preparing for it.
"That last period we had before I left for my exam, I probably had the best period I've had," Towles said. "And it was a blitz period, so we're improving and I'm looking forward to another opportunity on Saturday, for sure."
Shelby Workman had 10 kills in UK's sweep of Morehead State on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
A scheduling quirk made for a strange week for the Kentucky volleyball team.
The Wildcats, accustomed to having matches on Fridays and Saturdays, spent their weekend practicing instead of playing following a sweep of rival Tennessee on Wednesday.
"Pretty unusual, actually," head coach Craig Skinner said. "It's kind of weird going through a weekend without playing a match."
For that reason, UK scheduled a match with in-state foe Morehead State on Monday to bridge the gap between the Tennessee win and the Cats' return to Southeastern Conference play on Friday against Georgia. Kentucky came in the heavy favorite and performed accordingly in a sweep.
"When on paper you should win a match it's hard to always be focused the entire way," Skinner said. "For us to--I don't think we had any hitting errors in set three. ... For us to be able to do that and sustain it through three sets I think is good."
After a competitive first set, the Cats were dominant. UK outscored the visitors 50-26 in the final two sets behind an efficient offensive effort. The Cats hit a season-high .449 as a team in reaching the 20-win plateau for the seventh time in eight seasons and fourth in a row.
"I guess I don't think a whole lot about it, but it's the next win," Skinner said. "As we go down the stretch, I think some matches down the road are more important, Georgia obviously being the first one this weekend (in the) middle of a home stretch, which is nice to kind of get some confidence, get some training in."
UK used Monday's match as a training ground of sorts, testing out a new scheme with its two middle blockers, playing 13 total players and getting some important work for Shelby Workman.
"We were able to try some different things," Skinner said. "We've been trying to smooth some things out with Shelby and trying to get some people some playing time in different scenarios. We were able to do that and rest a couple people that have been banged up a little bit. So it was nice to be able to take care of business."
Workman responded, hitting .444 and tallying 10 kills. She trailed only Lauren O'Conner, who followed back-to-back 19-kill performances with an efficient 11-kill effort. O'Conner, it seems, is intent on making the final weeks of her decorated UK career count.
"She's just a veteran leader," Skinner said. "She's confident hitting any shot. She's just really proving herself right now as a true (No. 1 left-side hitter), someone that can carry the offensive load when you need it, which relieves some stress off your setter and also relieves some stress of your other hitters. She's playing well and playing with a lot of confidence."
Almost two years into his Kentucky tenure, Mark Stoops has become famous for his fire.
That passion, one of the driving forces behind the progress of the UK program, is most often seen on the sideline on Saturday, but this week it made an earlier appearance.
Stoops, at his regular Monday press conference, minced no words in evaluating his team's performance in a loss over the weekend and spoke in no uncertain terms about what the Wildcats need to do over the final month of the regular season.
The gathered media, noting his frustration, wondered what Stoops would be like when he met with his team later in the day.
"You can stand out in the street and you'll hear," Stoops said.
Stoops isn't angry for the sake of being angry either. He sees a UK team that has fallen to 5-4 (2-4 Southeastern Conference) but still has every opportunity to address the discipline issues that plagued the Cats in a deflating 20-10 loss at Missouri.
"I feel like our players and our coaches, starting with me, we have a choice in that matter," Stoops said. "We either choose to be disciplined or we choose to be undisciplined. We either choose to be a trained football team and us as a coaching staff need to train them."
To Stoops, that all comes down to details.
"If you're supposed to run a six-step out, run it six, not eight," Stoops said. "If you're supposed to follow the guard on a run play, follow the guard, not just run anywhere you want to run. That's what I mean by 'untrained.' It's creating those habits and training to play when you're under pressure. When we're under pressure, our habits come right to the surface and they're bad habits."
In the midst of three straight losses, the mood around UK football is much different than it was after a 5-1 start that generated talk of the Cats contending for the SEC Eastern Division crown. But just as things weren't as good as they seemed three weeks ago, they aren't as bad as they seem right now.
"We just need to be better," Stoops said. "We're inconsistent. The wheels aren't falling off; we barely had them on."
UK, in other words, is still very much in development mode.
"We've got to scratch and claw and fight and dig down for everything that we get," Stoops said. "To think that you're going to go out there and hope that they happen, we're mistaken. I constantly talk about that. We cannot wait for our moment. We've got to train to go take it and make our moment."
The Cats have three chances left to make their moment in the regular season, starting with a Senior Day matchup against No. 17 Georgia at noon ET on Saturday. The Bulldogs (6-2, 4-2 SEC) suffered a 38-20 defeat at the hands of Florida over the weekend, but remain a major challenge for any opponent.
"They bring a very good football team," Stoops said. "I think they bring a power running team that we know has hurt us in the past as well. They can run the heck out of the football. They're very talented. They can throw it. They're very balanced. They're playing great defense."
Georgia is the only team to rank in the top four in the SEC in both scoring offense and scoring defense, relying on a ground attack that averages 265.9 yards and a rushing defense that allows just 105.1 yards per game.
"Georgia is going to present a real problem to us because, first of all, they're not going to give you anything," Stoops said. "They're one of those aggressive defenses. They're very well coached. They're not going to give you anything easy. So you've got to go earn your yards. You have to win your one-on-ones."
In the wake of an offensive performance that saw the Cats gain just 258 yards, schemes and play calls have been popular topics, but not as much for Stoops. Of course the UK staff will work hard to craft a game plan that will position the Cats for success, but that's not the priority this week.
"There's no magical little scheme or anything like that," Stoops said. "You got to win. You got to block some people, get open, throw good footballs."
Depth chart update: Williams the new starter at running back
Following a game in which he accounted for 97 of UK's 258 yards from scrimmage, true freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams has moved by himself to the top of the depth chart at running back. Braylon Heard, Mikel Horton and Jojo Kemp follow him.
At wide receiver, there are numerous changes. Garrett Johnson is now listed as a starter at one of the four spots, along with Demarco Robinson, Javess Blue and Ryan Timmons. Joey Herrick has moved into a backup role behind Timmons, while T.V. Williams and Rashad Cunningham are no longer listed.
At quarterback, Drew Barker is no longer listed as a backup. Stoops confirmed on Monday the reason for that is it's too late in the season for the true freshman to burn his redshirt.
In the secondary, Fred Tiller and Blake McClain are still starters at cornerback and nickelback, respectively, in spite of suffering injuries at Missouri. Stoops said both are expected to be "fine" for Saturday.