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As they gathered on Sunday night to watch the Selection Show together, the Wildcats had advanced to eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments. In two of the previous three years, they earned the right to host the first and second rounds.
That doesn't make accomplishing both feats yet again any less rewarding.
"Our kids played really hard this year and we had a great schedule. We had a lot of good wins throughout the year," Skinner said. "To be in a position to be on your home court the first and second rounds, to host the first and second round, is a great feeling."
UK (21-8) was tabbed the No. 15 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, meaning the Cats will once again play their first- and second-round matches in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum. Alexandra Morgan remembers well playing NCAA matches at home in previous years and the advantage it provides.
"It's so much fun," said Morgan, who was named to the All-Southeastern Conference first team on Monday. "Our fans are always amazing at our games, but I felt like the in the tournament they were louder, there were more people there just because it is the national tournament and our season's ending."
Kentucky will open its postseason run on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET against Duquense (20-9). The Dukes won the Atlantic 10 for the first time this season and enter the tournament having won 13 of their last 14 matches.
"You've just gotta think about the first round, and Duquesne is that team," Skinner said. "They won their league and had a great season."
By the time the Cats take the floor later this week, they will have waited nine days since their last match. UK took days off on Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving and returned to the practice floor for two solid days of work over the weekend.
"We've been working really hard in our past two practices," Morgan said. "We've gotten a lot better and we just need to stay focused on volleyball and getting better as opposed to worrying about other distractions that we could be going through right now."
With the fall semester coming to a close, the Cats will have to balance preparing for finals with volleyball. They aren't particularly worried.
"I don't think that's going to be tough for us," Morgan said. "This is a really strong team, we're a competitive team and we're really good at focusing on volleyball and that's going to get us pretty far, I think."
UK enters the tournament having lost two straight, but that's somewhat misleading considering the level of competition faced in those matches. The defeats came against Missouri and Florida, teams seeded fourth and fifth overall in the NCAA Tournament. Add in a win over Texas A&M, another tournament team, in the third-to-last match and you have an end-of-season stretch that figures to have the Cats ready for what's next.
"You can't ask for a better schedule to end the year to prepare you for the NCAA Tournament and our next match," Skinner said. "I'm very excited about how it ended in terms of who we played."
The final result didn't end up being what UK wanted, but the fight the Cats showed in a five-set defeat against Florida is certainly encouraging. The Gators were dominant in the first set and came back in the second to steal a 2-0 lead, but Kentucky didn't fold. Quite the opposite in fact, as UK won the third and fourth before falling in five.
"It's very good to know that, if we start out poorly, that we can finish a lot stronger," Morgan said. "The Florida game was very disappointing, but seeing how hard we fought in the second and third game and the other games just gives me a lot of hope."
Skinner hopes to take even more than hope away from the loss. First, it's a lesson in the importance of starting fast against top competition. Second, it's a lesson in how good the Cats can be when they're clicking.
"We took from sets two, three, four how Kentucky volleyball plays at its highest level," Skinner said. "If we play like that, we can match up with anybody. But it's a matter of doing that and we have to figure it out this week in practice and get the ball rolling on Friday night and hopefully give us a chance to take the next step forward in the tournament."
The next step forward is the second round -- where UK would face the winner of Michigan State and Ohio. After that, Kentucky is looking at an opportunity stay home again for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Lexington was tabbed as a regional host three seasons ago and the Cats have been thinking about playing in that regional ever since.
"We were really excited about that and that's one of our goals we set out in the beginning of the season," Morgan said. "We want to be playing in that regional and we have all plans to be playing in that."
Skinner is all about preparing one match at a time, but he also doesn't mind if his players glean a little extra motivation from the prospect of playing in the regional.
"Of course we aren't going to look past Duquense and that matchup, but sure there's motivation to get there," Skinner said. "You would think that every team that has the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament is motivated to advance. We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here. We're here to get the next opportunity to play."
All-session tickets for the first and second round go on sale Monday at 9 a.m. ET and can be purchased at the UK Ticket Office, online at UKathletics.com/tickets or by calling the ticket office at (800) 928-2287 or (859) 257-1818. All-session tickets are $12 for reserved seats at Memorial Coliseum. Adult general admission tickets (13+) are $10, while seniors (65+) and UK students can purchase all-session tickets for $6 and youth (ages 3-12) general admission tickets cost $4. Single-session tickets, which are $8 for reserved seats and $7 for adult general admission seats and $5 for seniors/UK students and $4 for youth, go on sale Friday at 9 a.m.
The tone was set from the first serve. This was going to be a nip-and-tuck match
The scores in the opening set between Kentucky and Texas A&M went from 0-0 to 10-10 to 20-20. Neither the Wildcats nor the Aggies led by more than two all set.
It was exactly what Craig Skinner expected.
"We knew it was going to be a battle," Skinner said.
The Cats knew everything they needed to about A&M. The Aggies started Southeastern Conference play 3-7, but had rebounded and lost just one set it the last two weeks to climb back above .500.
"We knew they were on a five-game streak, so we knew what they could do," senior Whitney Billings said. "We knew they were going to bring it and they did."
Knowing that, it seemed a certainty Friday's match would come down to end-of-set execution, but not quite to this extreme.
All three sets in Kentucky's dramatic sweep of Texas A&M were decided by two points -- the minimum for a volleyball match -- and two went beyond regulation. And when points counted most, the Cats were at their best.
"Our kids were better executing under pressure than we were at the beginning and middle of all three sets," Skinner said. "I'm proud of that."
The third set was the most dramatic example, as UK found itself in a 23-20 hole with A&M just two points away from forcing a fourth set. With a combination of tough serving, well-placed attacks and a sturdy block, the Cats won six of the next seven points to close out the victory.
"I just like the way we kept our composure," Billings said. "We didn't freak out that we were down a couple points and we pulled through."
Billings was central to that effort, tallying three kills in the match-deciding run. The senior, like much of her team, struggled with errors in the first and second set, but came on the final frame to hit .545 and register seven of her match-high 15 kills.
"The thing that Whitney did best: She went for everything," Skinner said. "That was as aggressive as I've ever seen her offensively and she made some errors, but she had some big-time kills when we needed it and made plays at the net. That's all you can ask for."
All season, the Cats have shown a knack for raising their game when it matters most. Set-ending spurts have become the norm and UK now boats a 15-10 record in sets decided by the minimum of two points.
As with pretty much everything else, that starts on the practice floor.
"We have a lot of drills that we're down and the other side is ahead and we have to come back and win and there's usually something on the line for it," Billings said.
Billings named taking down and setting up the nets for practice as one set of possible stakes.
"No one wants to do that," Billings said.
However UK has become so effective at the end of sets, it bodes well as the Cats out the regular season and prepares for the NCAA Tournament.
"It's important," Skinner said. "Every team we play from here on out is very good. And so you expect to be in sets after 20 in close games and you've got to be comfortable being uncomfortable and we definitely were that tonight."
UK will have to be "comfortable being uncomfortable" on Sunday with Missouri coming to town. The fourth-ranked Tigers are the nation's lone unbeaten team at 32-0 and clinched the SEC Championship as UK was playing Texas A&M on Friday.
"Well, we gotta get rest and get refocused," Skinner said. "We'll go through the game plan tomorrow on Missouri. They're obviously a great team. We gotta go for it, we gotta play well and let the chips fall where they may. But I like this team, I like how hard we play and I know we'll give Missouri everything that we can."
Adding fuel to the fire on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET is the fact that UK will bid farewell to the class of Billings, Alexandra Morgan, Jessi Greenberg and Desirre' Wilkerson with Senior Day festivities.
"It's going to be sad," Billings said. "It's not our last match at home (UK faces Florida on Wednesday), but just knowing that it's senior night, it's going to be a little emotional."
Skinner isn't hiding from that fact.
"There will be emotions flying everywhere," Skinner said. "It's a good thing though. You can't really anticipate what'll happen the first part of the first set, but as long as we just keep our composure and stay focused and have tunnel vision through each point, we'll give ourselves a great chance to be successful."
And if it comes down to the final points, don't bet against Kentucky.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Nov. 17:
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
Arin Gilliland, who is a MAC Hermann Award Watch List candidate, scored the game-winning goal in the 53rd minute, collecting her team-leading 12th goal of the season on a breakaway slotted far post. Gilliland also tabbed an assist on Kentucky's third goal from, freshman Zoe Swift, for her fourth multi-point game of the season, which also leads the team and ties for the SEC lead.
Women's soccer: Caitlin Landis
Caitlin Landis scored the game-opening goal in the 50th minute, putting home a rebound off a re-fire from a corner kick. The goal for the senior was her fourth of the season as she put Kentucky up 1-0 early.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan had a tremendous week for the Wildcats as UK went 2-0 with a pair of sweeps on the road at Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Morgan opened the weekend by leading UK to a season-high 19 blocks. The Birmingham, Ala., native had a career-high 11 rejections which marked the most blocks by a Wildcat in a single match in the 25-point rally scoring era. She also contributed seven kills on a .438 hitting clip, as UK as a unit only managed to hit at a .186 clip. Against Ole Miss, she again led the squad with six total blocks to run her total to 17 for the two matches at a rate of a stunning 2.83 per set. She added six kills on .400 hitting. For the weekend, Morgan went errorless with 13 kills at a .419 clip and registered 4.00 points per set, just behind Whitney Billings' 4.08 per set who plays in every rotation.
Men's basketball: Julius Randle
- Recorded a double-double in both games this week. He's just the fifth player in program history to begin the season with four-straight double-doubles, and the first since Reggie Hanson achieved the feat to begin the 1989-90 season.
- His 27-point, 13-rebound effort against Michigan State gave him a third-straight 20-point, 10-rebound game to become the first Division I freshman to open with three-straight 20-10 games since Kansas State's Michael Beasley in 2007.
- His 54 rebounds to begin his career are the most of any player in the John Calipari era.
- Had a career-high two blocks against Robert Morris.
- Scored 23 points and had nine rebounds as UK erased a 14-point second half deficit to even the game late in the second half vs. No. 2 Michigan State.
Men's basketball: James Young
- Had a break-out offensive weekend for the Wildcats with a career-high 19 points against second-ranked Michigan State
- Scored in double-figures in both games this week
- Has sunk at least one 3-pointer in all four games this season for UK
- Had career-highs of points, rebounds and field goals made against Michigan State
- Logged career-highs in assists (3) and steals (2) in a win over Robert Morris
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Nov. 10:
Men's basketball: Julius Randle
- Recorded a double-double in both of UK's victories.
- Scored 45 points in two games, more than any other UK freshman in his first two games under John Calipari. The previous high was John Wall in 2009-10 who totaled 40 in his first two outings.
- Is the first Wildcat to have consecutive 20-point, 10-rebound games since Patrick Patterson in Dec. 2008.
- Sunk 10 or more free throws in both contests, the 11 made vs. UNC Asheville ranks the as the second-most in a single game under Calipari.
- His 23-point, 16-rebound effort was just two points and one rebound shy of matching UK first-game records in both statistical categories. Terrence Jones had 25 points in his collegiate debut, while Sam Bowie hauled in 17 rebounds.
- His three assists against Northern Kentucky was a team-high.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson simply had a match for the ages in a five-set victory over LSU on Sunday. Thomasson set a 25-point rally scoring era and Craig Skinner tenure record with a 30-kill performance in the win. She totaled the 30 hammers on an impressive .373 hitting percentage. She countered it with a career-high 22 digs to provide a defensive spark as well. No UK player under Skinner has ever turned a 30-20 trick, and she is the first conference player to do so since Kayla Fitterer of Alabama achieved the feat in 2010. The last UK player to record 30 kills in a match was a senior, Sarah Spinner, with 36 in 2004. Thomasson was also perfect in the serve-receive line with 29 total attempts and zero errors. She received the final serve from LSU and won the match for UK with her 30th kill down the line. She opened the weekend with a12-kill performance against South Carolina. In all, Thomasson has now reached the double-figure kill plateau in four-straight conference matches. For the weekend, she averaged a blistering 5.25 kills per set on a .341 hitting percentage. She also contributed 3.12 digs per stanza a squad-high 5.56 points.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Nov. 3:
Men's soccer: Callum Irving
Sophomore goalkeeper Callum Irving continued his stellar season with a pair of shutout performances in UK's two-game week ... A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Irving saved five shots in UK's 2-0 win at Marshall on Wednesday, including four key saves in a second half to keep the team in the game before UK scored two goals in the late half ... In UK's 6-1 win over Florida Atlantic, Irving worked the first 65 minutes scoreless, before subbing out in favor of senior Jack Van Arsdale on senior day ... Irving is sporting a stretch of 166 consecutive scoreless minutes played ... On the year, Irving has a 1.06 goals-against average in 12 games, with 33 saves and five shutouts.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan had an exceptional week during UK's tough road stretch. Morgan notched a season-high 14 kills on a blistering .591 hitting percentage in helping UK snap a two-match losing streak to Arkansas. Morgan also posted a pair of digs and added six blocks. Kentucky turned away 15 Razorback attacks for the second-straight match with Morgan helping lead the way. At No. 7 and undefeated Missouri, Morgan posted eight kills on a team-high .316 hitting percentage for players with at least 10 attempts. For the week, she averaged 3.14 kills per set on a squad-best .463 hitting clip while adding a block per set.
Men's soccer: Tyler Riggs
Senior forward Tyler Riggs had the best week of his decorated career, totaling four goals in a two-game span, including the ninth hat trick in Kentucky history in a win over FAU ... In UK's must-win road tilt at Marshall on Wednesday, Riggs netted the game-winning goal in the second half and forced a penalty kick with a foul in the box for UK's second goal of the game ... A native of Louisville, Ky., Riggs netted three second-half goals to lead UK to a 6-1 win over FAU on Sunday, marking his first career hat trick ... All three of his goals came in his 24 minutes played in the second half ... Riggs now has four two or more goal game of his career ... He now has 28 goals in his career, the fourth-most in UK history ... His first goal of the trio vs. the Owls came just 23 seconds into the second half, the third-fastest goal to start the second half in program history ... Has five goals in 15 games in 2013, with 33 shots.
Volleyball: Sara Schwarzwalder
Sophomore Sara Schwarzwalder led the defensive charge for the Wildcats in a 1-1 week. She registered a career-high nine blocks in leading UK to a win over Arkansas on Friday. The nine blocks is the most by a UK player this season and just one shy of a Kentucky record for a four-set match. Schwarzwalder again led the Cats defensively in a heartbreaking loss at No. 7 and undefeated Missouri with a team-high four block assists.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson had a breakout offensive performance for the Cats in a 1-1 week. For the first time in her career she had back-to-back double-digit kill efforts. She began the week with 12 kills on .323 hitting in a victory over Arkansas. She followed that with a career-high 15 kill effort in a loss at Missouri. The freshman outside hitter had the most kills of any player on the court against the Tigers. Thomasson for the week averaged a team-high 3.86 kills per set and ranked second on the team with 4.00 points per frame. She also continued to be a steady defensively with an average of 2.00 scoops per set.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, October 27:
Football Top Performers:
- Alvin "Bud" Dupree - Career-high 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss and a quarterback sack
- Raymond Sanders - Rushed 15 times for 86 yards, caught two passes for six yards
- Jojo Kemp - Rushed 15 times for 63 yards and a touchdown
- Ryan Timmons - Caught five passes for 69 yards
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
MAC Hermann Award finalist Arin Gilliland netted her team-high 11th goal of the season in the 64th minute to draw even with the Tigers. Gilliland now has 11 goals and nine assists for 31 points on the season. With three points this weekend, Gilliland now has 72 career points, which is fifth all-time in UK history.
Women's soccer: Caitlin Landis
Senior Caitlin Landis scored her 21st-career goal on Friday night, as she is now the active career goal-scoring leader for Kentucky. The Milton, Penn., native has 12 points this season, with four goals and four assists. Landis had the assist on the game-tying goal on Sunday afternoon to Arin Gilliland, and was a crucial component for the other two goals in the UK offensive attack.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan had a terrific week for the Wildcats en route to a 2-1 week, with the only loss a heartbreaking 3-2 loss with a 23-21 score in the fifth set. Morgan averaged 2.50 kills per set on a team-high .436 hitting clip. She also averaged a team-high 1.25 blocks per set and ranked second on the team with 3.54 blocks per frame. She began the week with an 11-kill performance at Georgia which was the first double-figure kill effort in conference play of the season for the middle blocker. She also posted a team-best six blocks in the match and added a season-high three service aces. Against Mississippi State she notched five kills on a .400 hitting clip while adding a trio of blocks. Against her home-state team, Alabama, she posted a season-high 14 kills on a blistering .619 hitting percentage while adding six block assists. With a .436 hitting clip and 55 attempts on the week, Morgan moved into second-place all-time in the history of the UK program for hitting percentage with a career-clip of .346.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson continues to bring a consistent presence to the Wildcat lineup. Thomasson contributes in every facet of the game and this week was no exception as UK earned a 2-1 week against league foes with the only loss coming in five-set fashion with the fifth set resulting in a 23-21 score. Thomasson notched a career-high three assists and a career-best four blocks against the Bulldogs while adding seven kills and nine digs. She received 42 attempts from the serve-receive line and did not commit a single error. Against Mississippi State she reached double-figure kills for the fourth time in her career and with 12 resulting as a career-best in league competition. She laid down her kills with a .357 hitting clip, while adding three digs and a pair of blocks. In the four-set win over Alabama, Thomasson notched six kills, and 10 digs. She has topped the 10-dig plateau on six occasions in her young career. She also aided the Wildcat cause with a pair of assists.