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."
Kentucky Wildcats TV continues to produce some great stuff as UK's Saturday matchup with South Carolina approaches. This time, Patrick Towles sits down to talk about his journey from third stringer a year ago to having a breakout season as the starter in 2014.
And by the way, one of the best players in UK history and current Green Bay Packer star Randall Cobb will be in attendance to watch Towles and the Cats in action this weekend.
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.
Mark Stoops said following an "OK" practice on Tuesday that UK would have to step it up in its preparations for South Carolina.
That's exactly what the Wildcats did on Wednesday.
"We had a good Wednesday practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were flying around and communicating. It was what to be expected, so we're making progress and continuing to get better and looking forward to tomorrow's practice as well."
Practice time is precious as UK readies for a matchup with the Gamecocks. That's especially true for defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who will match wits with legendary South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier.
"Coach Spurrier has had a lot of success and he has a lot of experience and he's an excellent coach and will get you," Eliot said. "So you've gotta be on your Ps and Qs and you gotta have your guys ready to play because he knows how to get you and he's an excellent football coach and we're going to have our (work) cut out for us this weekend."
Spurrier uses first-year starter Dylan Thompson at quarterback after Connor Shaw's graduation. Thompson is a different player than his predecessor, but has thrown for 1,359 yards and 12 touchdowns through five games.
"Shaw's more of a runner," Eliot said. "Shaw will tuck it down and get some yards on you. He had some loose plays. He was a scramble player. Thompson's a great pocket quarterback, has a strong arm, makes good throws, makes good decisions, but Shaw was more of a runner."
The change works out fine because running back Mike Davis gets it done on the ground for the Gamecocks.
"Mike Davis is an excellent player," Eliot said. "He's big. He's fast. He makes great reads. He can change directions. He'll run you over. He's one of the top backs in the SEC and we're going to have our (work) cut out for us this week."
Kentucky's weekly media schedule didn't call for Mark Stoops to speak after practice until Thursday, but the UK head coach made an exception on Tuesday.
Stoops commented on the suspension of Dorian Baker, Drew Barker, Tymere Dubose and Stanley Williams stemming from an on-campus incident on Sunday night. He made it clear their actions were unacceptable, but was sure they were a departure from the character of the four true freshmen.
"We have some good kids that used poor judgment, that made a mistake," Stoops said. "They know they made a mistake and they're being held accountable for it. We tried to address it quickly and decisive. They were wrong. And, like I said, they were remorseful. They realize it now."
Stoops first learned the players were involved in the incident minutes before his weekly press conference on Monday. After gathering facts, the decision to suspend them was announced just hours later.
"We do like we try to do whether it's a win, a loss or a mistake or anything good or bad," Stoops said. "We hit it right on, right in the face. We tell them what's going on and what they're accountability's going to be both publicly and to their team."
Beyond the public suspension, the matter was addressed internally within the team, according to Stoops. He said Wildcats now had some "closure" on the issue.
"We have expectations," Stoops said. "We have core values within our program. We try to live them each and every day. We understand that we're not perfect, just like somebody within our family. We made a mistake. They're going to be held accountable and we'll move on."
For UK, moving on means preparing for a stiff test against South Carolina on Saturday evening. The suspensions caused a minor distraction on Monday, but nothing to derail their game-week work.
"We're fine," Stoops said. "We're good. We had a great day Sunday of coaches prepping and we had a good day all day Monday."
Tuesday wasn't quite as good, as Stoops described the late-afternoon practice as just "OK." UK will have to improve with the Gamecocks (3-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) waiting.
South Carolina has played arguably the toughest schedule in the country to this point, scoring wins over Georgia, East Carolina and Vanderbilt and losing to Texas A&M and Missouri. The Gamecocks led 20-7 in the fourth quarter last weekend against Missouri, but gave up 14 unanswered in the final seven minutes to lose 21-20.
The Gamecocks' performance, however, was still impressive to the offensive coordinator tasked with preparing for them.
"Got a good football team rolling in here on Saturday night; they'll be a hungry football team," Neal Brown said. "I'm impressed, really impressed with what they did on Saturday night. I watched the TV, watched it live and then watching it on coaches' film. They held a very good Missouri offense to ballpark 280 yards, 150 pass and 130 rushing. Very impressive. They've gotten better."