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By Connor Link, UK Athletics
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.
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."
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.
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."
After a sloppy set of opening play to begin Thursday's match with Lipscomb, the Wildcats quickly found themselves staring at a 1-0 deficit on the Memorial Coliseum scoreboard.
Once the set ended and the Kentucky players made their way to the team huddle, senior Lauren O'Conner knew something had to change.
"(The huddle) was a little intense, but we just wanted to focus on the next game," O'Conner said. "This season we've really been focusing on next point, next play, so I've been really excited about that. This match, forget about the last (set), take care of what we need to do, and handle business."
After Lipscomb claimed the first set 25-21, No. 15 Kentucky slammed its foot on the gas and never looked back. The Wildcats woke up and won the next three sets, and none by fewer than eight points.
"Individually, we all stepped it up another level, and we had to focus on some of the players that were going off, like the pin hitters," O'Conner said. "I think we did a good job the rest of the game of putting up better blocks and playing better defense."
Defense, as she and her Kentucky teammates promptly realized, ultimately proved to be the turning point. Lipscomb cruised to victory in the first set by way of a .519 hitting percentage, but finished the next three sets at .047, -.029, and .088, respectively. UK head coach Craig Skinner attributes the opening set loss simply to his team's prolonged period of adjustment.
"Well, Lipscomb is a good team," Skinner said. "We knew that coming in, and they hit .500 in set one. That is partly on us, but partly them. They run a style that is hard to catch up to. It took us a set."
After falling to the Lady Bisons in the first set, Skinner knew the Cats had to make immediate alterations if they wanted to avoid being on the wrong side of an upset.
"We were blocking the wrong shots on their outside hitters, and we had to make an adjustment on that," Skinner said. "We were allowing their middles to score on good passes. Our middles were not jumping with them. But, we had to change the tempo with our serve. We had to drop in some short balls and stuff like that to slow down the rhythm, and that really worked tonight."
On offense, O'Conner led the way. The outside hitter finished the evening with 14 kills, just four shy of her career high, hitting .444 in the process.
"She is a very experienced player, and has a high IQ of the game," Skinner said. "When her offense is going, she is a real threat, and (she) helps balance our attack along all three thirds of the net. She did a great job of that tonight."
O'Conner, typical of a senior leader, was quick to deflect praise to her teammates and the way they bounced back from a forgettable start.
"Morgan (Bergren) put up really good sets and once the second, third, and fourth set came our defense overall got better, which allowed her to be able to position the ball better so everyone allowed me to get the kills that I did," O'Conner said.