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.
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."
Lauren O'Conner had 14 kills and six digs in UK's win over Lipscomb on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
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.
Anni Thomasson had 13 kills and 12 digs in UK's season-opening win on Friday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
In practice leading up to the 2014 volleyball season, kills were hard to come by.
What Craig Skinner wondered was whether that had more to do with the strength of Kentucky's defense or the offense's need to improve.
After a season-opening win over Wichita State, the former seems more likely.
Facing a team that reached the NCAA Tournament a season ago, the Wildcats were dominant on the attack in a decisive sweep of the Shockers.
"I'm very happy with the way we played in our first match," Skinner said. "Who knows what to expect. You know how you've been playing against your own team. Wichita State, even though they're a young team, they're always well coached and always very athletic."
It was a balanced effort that carried UK, with four Wildcats putting down at least six kills on the opening night of the Bluegrass Battle. Senior setter Morgan Bergren guided an offense that hit at a .372 clip with 31 assists as No. 19 Kentucky moved to 1-0 entering a Saturday doubleheader against Butler and Virginia Tech.
"I thought Morgan did a really nice job of finding the right people at the right time," Skinner said. "Everybody got involved in the offense. Wichita State had a hard time knowing who she was going to set."
Anni Thomasson was the most likely candidate to finish off points. The sophomore had 13 kills and just two errors in hitting .440.
"Anni's just a great volleyball player," Skinner said. "She figures out ways to score. When she can't pound it straight down, she's going to find a seam or a hole in the defense."
Not only does she find holes in the opposing defense, she also fills them in UK's. Thomasson added 12 digs in what figures to be the first of many double-doubles for her this season. Thomasson was one of UK's best players a season ago in receiving All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team honors, but she appears poised to be even better in 2014.
"No one outworks her," Skinner said. "She just is a grinder and wants to be really good and never takes a day off. When you're like that, it's hard not to improve."
The Newark, Ohio, native is an outside hitter, a position sometimes occupied by offensive specialists, but Thomasson is as much of a contributor on defense. That's a big reason why Skinner says this could be the best defensive team he's coached.
"There's not a position that's weak defensively," Skinner said. "Typically you'll have one, maybe two people that struggle defensively. I think we're going to make it tough for people to score, but we gotta do it every day."
That means practice too, where more intense offense-defense battles are surely in store.
To count down the days to the start of the 2014 season, the UK volleyball team and coaching staff talked about what Kentucky volleyball means to them as part of the Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball.
For head coach Craig Skinner, it's "a culture of great people that are striving to be the best." Junior Morgan Bergren added that playing for UK is about "being part of something bigger than yourself," while freshman Ashley Dusek said UK volleyball means "passion."
Comments from the student-athletes ranged from "family" and "commitment" to "determination and pride" and "the opportunity of a lifetime." Each answer was a different opinion of what makes UK volleyball a special program to be a part of and such a great place to play.
As the Wildcats prepared for the upcoming season, the daily feature, which coincided with updates on the team throughout preseason practice, gave the team a chance to reflect on what being a part of Kentucky volleyball and the UK community is all about. It was also an opportunity to look forward, as several student-athletes also talked about the opportunity to win a championship as they set their sights on the season.
An archive of "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and team updates throughout the preseason can be found here. Each day, a UK student-athlete was featured as part of the countdown, in correspondence with their uniform number in addition to the coaching staff.
The countdown also included updates, news and notes from UK's preseason practices. From preseason national rankings to the release of a feature film about the team's trip to China earlier this summer, it was an eventful month leading up to the 2014 season-opener.
The 2014 season is 24 hours away. At 6:30 p.m. ET, Kentucky will kick off the new season against Wichita State in Memorial Coliseum.
For a complete preview, Bluegrass Battle schedule, match notes, TV and live results information and more, check out UKathletics.com: Volleyball Hosts Bluegrass Battle to Open Season. The preview also includes video from Tuesday's media day and a feature on Cat Scratches, written by UK's Guy Ramsey.
About 24 hours away from the beginning of UKVB 2014. Can't wait to see our fans back in their spots at Memorial Coliseum...let's go! #one
For an archive of "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and team updates throughout the preseason, follow along with the full Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball, leading up to the August 29 season-opener. Additional updates throughout preseason practice can be found on Twitter at @KentuckyVBand on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.