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.
UK defeated Alabama in four sets on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. (Britney McItnosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky could have wilted, and it seemed for a moment the Wildcats might.
After UK charged to a 2-0 lead, Alabama responded with a 25-18 third-set victory. The Crimson Tide sustained the momentum in the fourth, grabbing a 16-14 advantage in the and appearing poised to even the match.
The Cats responded.
"I thought we went soft in set three and Alabama played well," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "To completely reverse that and play as tough as we did at the end says something about the character of this group."
UK went on a 4-0 run and took 11 of the match's final 15 points to seal the victory. During the decisive spurt, the Cats were especially exuberant after a number of highlight-reel kills and blocks. Even the normally stoic Skinner got involved with a couple emphatic fist pumps.
"Well, Alabama's a good team and they're tough and they keep coming at you," Skinner said. "They got us on our heels set three and at the beginning of set four, so we needed to dig down and produce. When you're able to do that and able to execute and get kills when you needed it, it is an emotional sport."
Alexandra Morgan had just one kill and one block during the run, but the senior's fingerprints were all over the rest of the match. She led the way with 14 kills and added six blocks, hitting .619 and committing only a single error in the process.
"I saw a little extra in her today," Skinner said. "With her aggressiveness in attacking and aggressiveness blocking, that's the Zan we need to see day in day out. But she's such a presence, such a factor over there every team has to pay attention to her. When she produces like that, it makes us all better."
Kentucky (15-5, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) will need Morgan to be at her best once again next weekend. The Cats face a tough road trip and will take on Arkansas and SEC-leading Missouri on Friday and Sunday.
"Arkansas is having a good year and Missouri's at the top of the league," Skinner said. "So going on the road in this conference is never easy and we'll need a good week of practice so we can execute down at those two places next weekend."
UK is now halfway through its conference slate and sits in third place, but the Missouri match will offer a chance to make up ground. Skinner isn't thinking that way.
"It's so early," Skinner said. "There's still nine matches left and so many things can happen. Coach speak: The most important match of the year is the next one. So that's really all we're focused on."
For the only time this season, the Kentucky volleyball team faced a two-day turnaround following a midweek match in Southeastern Conference play on Friday.
UK played a 6 p.m. ET match at Georgia on Wednesday, traveled home late that night and practiced the next day ahead of two more matches on Friday and Sunday.
The schedule, without question, was demanding. But given the circumstances, it was exactly what the Wildcats wanted.
The Cats lost that match against Georgia in heartbreaking fashion, dropping the final two sets in a five-match defeat. That meant they wanted no part of a long break before their next chance to take the floor.
"One of the best things that could have happened for us after not performing the way we wanted to on Wednesday is get back on the court quickly on Friday," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "I'm glad we were able to get back in the win column."
No. 15 UK (14-5, 6-2 SEC) bounced back with a 3-0 sweep of Mississippi State (11-10, 2-5 SEC), helping to erase the sting of the Georgia loss. Senior All-American Whitney Billings led the way once again, posting 15 kills to lead a UK attack that hit .367.
The difference between Wednesday and Friday was the Cats' mentality.
"I think our energy was a lot better," said freshman Anni Thomasson, who had 12 kills of her own. "We just had fun out there and we were making errors, but they were aggressive. At Georgia, they weren't so aggressive."
That aggressiveness was on display from the first serve, as UK rolled to a 25-13 win in the opening set. Mississippi State, however, would battle in the second set and even earn two set-point opportunities. UK was unfazed, as the Cats took the final four points and the set.
"The thing that we're continuing to learn is that every team in this league is capable of winning," Skinner said. "Mississippi State struggled last year but they have a much-improved team this year, swept last week (against South Carolina and Tennessee). And I thought we relaxed a little bit after we got the win in the first set and Mississippi State's an athletic team."
In the third set, UK grabbed a lead and wouldn't let go to clinch the sweep.
After the match, the Cats participated in a ceremony that put the victory in perspective. Friday was DanceBlue Night at Memorial Coliseum, as UK joined the fight against pediatric cancer. The Cats wore gold warm-ups and Skinner a gold tie that will be auctioned off on UKathletics.com beginning on Monday, with all proceeds going to DanceBlue, which raises money for the Golden Matrix Fund of UK's Pediatric Oncology Unit.
"We're community strong, so it's really important to us to give back to the community," Thomasson said. "We are fortunate enough to get the opportunity to play at Kentucky, so it means a lot to give back to the Lexington community."
The women's soccer team held its Kick Cancer Match earlier this fall and Skinner has a friendly wager going with fellow head coach Jon Lipsitz. If volleyball raises more money, Lipsitz has to shave his head. If women's soccer wins, Skinner will wear a wig for UK's first match next season.
"That'll be one heck of a bet," Skinner said. "I hope it's a tie."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, October 13:
Volleyball: Whitney Billings
Senior Whitney Billings registered her 38th career double-double with an 18-kill, 10 dig performance in a 3-0 sweep at South Carolina. Billings was UK's top threat with the 18 kills on a blistering .484 hitting percentage, while adding the 10 scoops. The 18 hammers marked a career-high in a three-set match. Even more impressive with Billings' play against South Carolina was that it was in response to a blatant effort by No. 2 Florida to slow the right side hitter down in the top-15 showdown. Billings managed five kills (one shy of a team high), but was one of only two players to record double-figure digs with the 10 scoops against the Gators.
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
Arin Gilliland scored three goals in Friday night's 4-1 win over Tennessee, collecting her first-career hat trick. Gilliland scored all three goals in the run of play, with the tallies coming in the 8th, 25th and 40th minutes. The MAC Herrmann Award finalist now has seven goals and eight assists on the season, and has scored multiple times in two games this season.
Women's soccer: Caitlin Landis
Senior Caitlin Landis had her best game of the season, scoring a goal and assisting on two other goals, both to Arin Gilliland. Landis' goal was the game-winning goal, which was her first of the 2013 season, and sixth in her career.
Volleyball: Jackie Napper
Sophomore Jackie Napper led the defensive effort for the Wildcats in a 1-1 week. Napper logged 28 digs for an average of 4.67 for the week, well above her season average of 3.88. She's eclipsed the 10-dig plateau in 12 of her last 13 matches to lead the Cats. She also contributed four assists on the week continuing to be a strong presence in the offensive game as well.
Craig Skinner and the Wildcats will travel to face No. 2 Florida on Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Opportunity is a word that comes up frequently with the Kentucky volleyball team.
Every practice is an opportunity to improve. Every weight-lifting session is an opportunity to get stronger. Every match is an opportunity for the Wildcats to test themselves.
Craig Skinner built UK's schedule with that in mind.
"Lipscomb was an opportunity to play in front of a hostile crowd and environment," Skinner said. "Minnesota was an opportunity to play against a top-five team from the Big Ten."
So far this season, UK has taken advantage of those opportunities more often than not. The Cats are 12-3 (4-0 Southeastern Conference), including wins in both those matches mentioned by Skinner. Now, they will face a challenge that combines a road crowd with a top-ranked opponent as UK travels to face No. 2 Florida (15-1, 4-0 SEC) on Friday (6:30 p.m. ET on SportsSouth).
"Florida's the perennial power in the SEC," Skinner said. "It's an opportunity for us to go toe to toe with them and see what we're all made of."
The Gators will surely give the Cats everything they can handle. Florida has won 10 straight matches, losing just one set in the process.
"They're very athletic at every position and physical," Skinner said. "I think they have a couple seniors that have a big desire to be successful. Their middles and right-sides, statistically, are off the charts."
The seniors are setter Taylor Brauneis - who ranks 10th in the nation at 11.62 assists per set - and middle blocker Chloe Mann. Mann also falls into the latter group, averaging 3.46 kills per set while hitting an astounding .527 to rank second nationally. Mann spearheads a Florida attack that also ranks second nationally with a hitting percentage of .349.
A few weeks ago, facing such an offense would have been much more troubling to Skinner. Since then, UK's defense has taken a step forward. The Cats have 41.5 blocks in their four SEC wins, holding opponents to a combined hitting percentage of just .137.
"We're physical in the front row and so we have to force their attackers to make choices," Skinner said. "They can't just have the freedom to do whatever they want. So our block is a big factor in that and channeling their attacks in certain directions and forcing a couple players to beat us and not allowing all five players to go for big numbers."
Skinner is concerned about that because of Florida's remarkable balance. Five different Gators are averaging at least 2.31 kills per set.
"You have to do some specific things with your block," Skinner said. "You have to serve tough to get them out of system so they can't set everybody. If every rotation they can set any one of the hitters they need to or want to, that'll be very difficult for us. But if force their setter to have to set one or two people as opposed to three or four, then we have a good shot."
If things go as planned, Skinner expects a close battle, which could end up favoring Kentucky. The Cats have already played four five-set matches, winning each of their last three, while Florida has played into the fourth set just three times and never gone the distance.
"Being in those kinds of situations helps you," Skinner said. "Our leadership for our seniors and captains, they're very even-keeled and the same all the time. So whether it's the first set or fifth set, I don't worry at all about how we're going to approach it.
"I think it's going to come down to: Can we score points when we need to? Can we finish? Can we force Florida to be a little bit uncomfortable out there? It's a tall task, but something that we're going to have to do to be successful."
Should UK come away with the win, it will be a signature road victory on an already-impressive resume. The Cats will get a boost in the polls and the RPI and grab a leg up on the Gators in what is shaping up to be a tight race at the top of the conference.
But no matter what, there will still be another road match to be played at South Carolina on Sunday. There will still be a month and a half left in the regular season. There will still be plenty of opportunities ahead.
"There are 18 matches in conference," Skinner said. "This is the fifth match and there are a lot of them left. We can't put all of our eggs in one basket. We're going to prepare hard and be ready for Florida and Saturday, win or lose, it's time to focus on South Carolina."