Senior Ashley Frazier led the Kentucky attack with 12 kills over ETSU. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
In a match that saw the East Tennessee State volleyball program make its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, it also displayed an experienced bunch in the Kentucky Wildcats who were making their eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance under head coach Craig Skinner.
After the first two points of the match, ETSU seemed the more experienced unit as the Buccaneers held an early 2-0 lead. That two-point advantage was short-lived.
Kentucky delivered an early bounce-back blow, going on a 20-3 run in the first set, ultimately leading to a 25-9 victory.
It was evident that the nerves and excitement of playing their first NCAA Tournament played a part in ETSU's first set struggles. Kentucky took advantage.
"It is different," said Skinner of making an NCAA Tournament debut. "Our first time in the Tournament you see the logo, you see the media, you see the different people there, you see the crowd and the bands. It's a different deal.
"Thankfully we've been in the Tournament. Our players have been there before and understand that."
Senior outside hitter Ashley Frazier certainly looked like she's been there before. She pounced on the ETSU defense, leading the Wildcats with four kills in that first set. Kentucky combined for 10 kills in the set and a .409 hitting percentage. But the defensive was equally impressive. The Cats picked up 15 digs in the frame and despite tallying no blocks, held ETSU to a .032 hitting percentage.
The Buccaneers settled in, however, and wouldn't leave Memorial Coliseum without putting up a fight.
Each team took turns going back and forth scoring points with ETSU eventually grabbing a 9-7 lead. Frazier looked to thwart the ETSU attack with a kill, but the Bucs answered right back.
Buccaneer outside hitter Megan Divine took to the serving line and tried to break the Kentucky passers. And it look like she might do it. She recorded three straight aces, baffling the Wildcats and forcing Kentucky into a timeout. She pushed the Bucs out to a 13-9 lead and it appeared Kentucky was in for a tougher battle than it expected after the first-set result.
Looking to break the momentum, senior setter Christine Hartmann looked to her other outside hitter in sophomore Lauren O'Conner. O'Conner broke Devine's serve with a kill, then it was the sophomore from Taylor Mill, Ky., who helped pull the Cats back even with the Bucs at 14 with another kill. She had four kills in the set.
"We got quiet when they ran a couple points," said Skinner. "You have to expect good teams to make good plays. ETSU did in the middle of the second set. It's just about trusting what you're doing and enjoying the journey of each point."
Then Hartmann took matters into her own hands on the next point and threw down a one-handed dump at the net to give Kentucky a 15-14 lead. And the Cats were off. They also picked up their defensive intensity, picking up three blocks in the set after recording no stuffs in the first.
Frazier tacked on two more kills in the frame, bumping up her total to eight on the night. It was another impressive run for the Wildcats after going down 13-9, UK went on to outscore ETSU 12-3 and took the second set 25-17.
Though Frazier was on her way to having a big night with 12 kills on 22 swings with just one error, she was quick to acknowledge that it was a total team effort Friday night.
"I don't think it was anyone individually who felt they needed to step up," Frazier said. "It was a total team effort. Going into the tournament, everybody's good at this point. You're going to have to play your best game in order to win."
East Tennessee still wasn't ready to let Kentucky walk away so easily. With a very impressive traveling party who made the trip from the Volunteer State, the crowd implored the Bucs to hang in and fight back. The Bucs did just that, staying with Kentucky early on in the third as they traded points to a 5-5 deadlock. But as Kentucky did all night, the Cats ran out to another long scoring stretch.
ETSU picked up two points to tie things at five, but a quick 6-0 run by Kentucky gave the Wildcats a lead they wouldn't look back on at 11-6. Frazier not only did it with her attack, but she also did it with her serve tonight, picking up an ace and serving tough to get the ETSU offense out of system. Her ace made it 18-7 and the route was on.
Kentucky finished with five aces and just one error. The Cats earned seven blocks after not recording one in the first set. And they tallied 43 digs including a match high 10 from senior libero Stephanie Klefot. Those statistics were the keys to the Wildcats' success.
"Our serving, our blocking defense and digging were the difference in the match," said Skinner. "That needs to be a mainstay for tomorrow night."
Kentucky went on to finish off the Bucs, 25-15, and take the sweep of their first round opponent to earn the right to face Ohio State in Saturday's second round. The Buckeyes put on an impressive offensive display against Notre Dame, also sweeping the Irish while hitting at a .512 clip.
Outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary had a monster night, picking up 16 kills on 19 swings, hitting .842 for the night. Kentucky will have the opportunity to try and stop Leary and the rest of the OSU offensive attack tomorrow night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at 7 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum where fans can expect to see the game played at the highest level.
"(Ohio State has) made plays all year, and had a really good season within the Big Ten and beat a lot of good teams," said Skinner. "It's going to be a good volleyball match. It's going to be as good of volleyball as you're going to see in the country."
Kentucky hosts the First and Second Rounds of the NCAA Tournament this weekend at Memorial Coliseum. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The University of Kentucky volleyball team welcomes in three strong opponents this weekend to Memorial Coliseum for the First and Second Rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State, Notre Dame and East Tennessee State each have made their way to Lexington, Ky., for their first practices of the tournament as they prepare for their first-round matchups Friday evening.
Here is a team-by-team guide of what you can expect from Kentucky's potential competition this weekend as Lexington will be host to some of the best volleyball in the nation.
East Tennessee State Buccaneers (23-12, 11-7 A-Sun)
2012 Atlantic Sun Champions
Head coach: Lindsey Devine
- Kentucky's first-round opponent (Lexington, Ky.) - Earned first trip to the NCAA Tournament in program history by defeating North Florida in championship match - Averaging 12.90 kills per set with a .227 hitting percentage offensively - Averaging 2.67 blocks per set and 13.3 digs per set defensively
Common opponents with UK: South Carolina (L, 3-2), Alabama (L, 3-0), Lipsomb (L, 3-1; W, 3-0)
Offensive leaders: Megan Devine - JR OH - 539 kills (3.96 K/Set), .225 Pct, 36 aces Meredith Hardy - SO MB - 388 kills (2.85 K/Set), .296 Pct Bethany Gesell - SO RS - 312 kills (2.31 K/Set), .241 Pct
"As far as the matchup goes, I'm very pleased with the pairing. I feel the selection committee valued our overall potential. It helps with the location being close so our fans can make the trip to Lexington, and as far as playing Kentucky, I think it's a great opportunity for our program to play a team of their caliber in our first trip to the NCAA Tournament."
"Craig Skinner has done a fantastic job during his time at Kentucky and his teams are really well-coached," added Devine. "They have dominant outside hitters and three talented senior leaders, and we know they are going to put up a fight - especially being on their home court."
Ohio State Buckeyes (22-10, 13-7 BIG TEN)
4th Place BIG TEN
Head coach: Geoff Carlston
- Faces Notre Dame in first round (Lexington, Ky.) - Finished No. 25 in the final RPI and No. 14 in the final AVCA Coaches Poll (Nov. 19) - Fourth straight selection to the NCAA Tournament (28-18 all-time in NCAA Tournament play) - One of seven Big 10 schools selected to the field of 64 and has reached the Sweet 16 each of the last two seasons - Senior outside hitter Mari Hole was named to the All-BIG TEN team - Senior right side hitter Emily Danks was named All-BIG TEN honorable mention - Averaging 13.61 kills per set with a .254 hitting percentage offensively - Averaging 2.29 blocks per set and 14.34 digs per set defensively
Common opponents with UK: Oregon (L, 3-2), Nebraska (L, 3-1; W, 3-1)
Offensive leaders: Mari Hole - SR OH - 512 kills (4.20 K/Set), .239 Pct Kaitlyn Leary - JR OH - 329 kills (2.57 K/Set), .265 Pct Emily Danks - SR OH - 313 kills (2.57 K/Set), .231 Pct, 47 Aces
Defensive leaders: Emily Danks - SR OH - 90 blocks (14 Solo), 0.74 Blk/Set Dionna DiSalvatore - JR L - 483 digs (3.99 D/Set)
What Carlston is saying:
"I think they're pretty excited about a new season, seeing someone they haven't seen before and someone who doesn't know them," Carlston said.
"This team has really thrived on the road," Carlston said. "One of the best road teams in the country."
"We just got to stay healthy first of all, and then just being consistent and staying aggressive," Carlston said. "Notre Dame is a great team and so we got to really stay focused. Focus on one game at a time."
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (20-9, 13-2 BIG EAST)
2nd Place BIG EAST
Head coach: Debbie Brown
- Faces Ohio State in first round (Lexington, Ky.) - First NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009 - Sophomore right side hitter Jeni Houser was named All-BIG EAST First Team - Junior setter Maggie Brindock was named All-BIG EAST Second Team - Averaging 13.77 kills per set with a .255 hitting percentage offensively - Averaging 2.7 blocks per set and 14.5 digs per set defensively
Common opponents with UK: Nebraska (L, 3-1), Louisville (W, 3-2)
Offensive leaders: Toni Aluqbue - SO OH - 385 kills (3.50 K/Set), .267 Pct Jeni Houser - SO RS - 363 kills (3.27 K/Set), .322 Pct Hilary Eppink - SR MB - 211 kills (2.18 K/Set), .274 Pct
Defensive leaders: Andie Olsen - JR MB - 95 blocks (12 solo), 1.04 Blk/Set Jeni Houser - SO RS - 88 blocks (11 solo), 0.79 Blk/Set Taylor Morey - FR L - 464 digs (4.18 D/Set)
What Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner is saying about the teams in Lexington this weekend:
"They've been hot the last part of the season. They've been playing really well. They have three or four very good attackers that bring the heat and play great defense. We're going to have to be prepared."
"They made a great run in the Atlantic Sun tournament and won three straight matches against very good teams. We have to block well and serve tough to get them out of system to stop their middles from getting involved heavily. Their leading attacker Devine on the outside hits as hard as anyone we've faced in the SEC. We'll have a great game plan and we'll be preparing for it as we get closer to Friday, and it should be a great test for us."
On OSU and ND:
"Both of those teams have beaten some of the best teams in the country during the regular season and earned their right to be in the tournament. Ohio State coming from the BIG TEN, a lot of great wins in that conference. Notre Dame coming from the BIG EAST, great wins in conference and out of conference, so that's going to be a great matchup."
"Right here in Memorial we are going to see some of the best volleyball in the country and that will continue on into Saturday with the winners playing at seven o'clock then. It's going to be a great weekend. The NCAA Tournament starts right here in Lexington so let's get it started."
In recent years, UK Athletics has made unprecedented strides in fielding a comprehensive athletic program. Twice in the past three years, the department has finished 29th in the final Director's Cup standings, a impressive mark, but not yet reaching the top-15 level Mitch Barnhart set as a goal as part of his 15 by 15 by 15 plan.
Historically, the fall sports season has put UK Athletics in a position of having to play catch-up in the winter and spring. Volleyball, men's soccer, women's soccer and cross country all complete the championship portions of their schedule in November or December. Each team has had its moments, but those moments have rarely coincided.
In 2012-13, it's been a different story.
UK is one of just six schools nationally to reach the NCAA Tournament in men's soccer, women's soccer and volleyball, joining Washington, UCLA, North Carolina, Marquette and Notre Dame. Moreover, UK is one of just three programs to host a first-round game in all three sports along with Washington and UCLA.
Volleyball has been a mainstay in the tournament, receiving bids in each of the last eight seasons, but the success of the two soccer teams is new. Women's soccer has now reached back-to-back NCAA Tournaments under Jon Lipsitz, including this season when the Wildcats won a game for the first time in school history. Meanwhile, Johan Cedergren's team was ahead of schedule in his first season, hosting a tournament game for the second time in school history.
The lone fall Olympic program at UK not to reach the team portion of the NCAA Championships was cross country, but individuals from both the men's and women's teams were represented in the individual portion. Cally Macumber and Chelsea Oswald each earned All-America recognition with top-40 finishes, while Luis Orta finished 114th, impressive for a runner participating in the race for the first time. All in all, the early returns in Edrick Floreal's first season leading UK track and field and cross country were very good.
Of course, the final piece of the fall puzzle is football, and UK recognizes just how important that program is to the department as a whole and, just as importantly, the Big Blue Nation. The 2012 season may not have gone as planned, but the coming weeks could lay the foundation for a bright future with a new coach set to be named soon.
Skinner had led Kentucky to eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Sunday afternoon brought forth a great surprise as the Kentucky volleyball team was selected to host the first and second Rounds of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. It was a joyous scene as the team and support staff gathered around head coach Craig Skinner's living room and kitchen to see where the Wildcats would be headed for their eighth straight NCAA Tournament.
ESPNU didn't make anyone in the Skinner household wait long as Kentucky showed up on the first bracket. It took a brief second for it to set in, but as the team realized not only was it in the in the field but they were staying home for the first two rounds, the girls let out their emotion and excitement in the form of echoing screams, cheering, dancing and hugging.
Less than 24 hours later, the good news continued to roll in with the announcement of the Southeastern Conference's weekly and seasonal awards with a great deal of blue in the mix.
"It feels good to be hosting the tournament," said Skinner. "It feels good we were recognized for playing a challenging schedule and earning enough respect to be seeded and be hosting. Any individual award, as long as I've been around the program, has been a reflection of the team's success."
Senior libero Stephanie Klefot, for the third straight season, was named SEC Libero of the Year and to the All-SEC Second Team. Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings was named to the All-SEC First Team. And freshman middle blocker Sara Schwarzwalder earned All-SEC Freshman Team honors.
Shortly thereafter, the weekly awards were announced, and yet again Stephanie Klefot was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week. It is her fifth such honor of her career and the first for her this season.
It's been an impressive run for Klefot, who will leave Kentucky as the program's second-leading digger. Her 1,885 digs have her currently ranked fourth in SEC history.
But Klefot made history Monday morning when she was named SEC Libero of the Year, becoming the first player in conference history to ever win the award three straight seasons. That's an impressive personal achievement, but it's also a credit to the Kentucky volleyball program.
"We've always emphasized defense in this program," said Skinner. "She's spearheaded our defense over the last few years and made a huge impression on the teams we play. Teams specifically game plan not to serve to her and not to attack to her. I think she has earned that respect along with our team and how we play defense and we're very proud of that honor."
Though the awards and the honor of hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament are great accomplishments for Skinner's players and his program, Skinner was one of the few who weren't surprised by any of it.
In fact, Skinner felt there was a good chance based on the fact that they simply deserved it.
"We felt like there was a chance to host," said Skinner. "I think the reason why the committee selected us to host was because the number of opponents we played that are in the top 50 in the RPI and then also the number of teams we beat within the top 25 of the RPI gave us the opportunity to host over some of the other teams."
Skinner has built something at Kentucky that is becoming a program that doesn't just stumble into accomplishments. They don't get lucky. Kentucky is earning everything that the Cats get. They are earning more than just awards, but also respect on the national volleyball landscape over the eight seasons that Skinner has been at the helm.
"Of course it's a sign of respect of what we've accomplished as a team this year," said Skinner. "The combination of those things, the teams coming in here will recognize it's a great venue, it's a great event, and obviously in conjunction with the NCAA Tournament, it's a heck of an experience for a student-athlete."
Skinner hopes that experience for his team will be a long one as the Cats take their journey in the NCAA Tournament, but that journey can't start unless they focus on the task at hand this Friday against their first-round opponent in East Tennessee State.
"I can't wait. There's three seasons within each program," said Skinner. "The preseason, the conference season and the postseason. We're fortunate enough to continue to play in the postseason and have a chance to represent Kentucky the right way. We can't wait for first serve on Friday night."
Football - The Kentucky football team dropped its final game of the 2012 season on Saturday, falling 37-17 to border state rival Tennessee in Knoxville. - Junior tailback Jonathan George led the team in rushing with 59 yards on eight carries, including a career-long 45-yard touchdown rush. George also had three receptions for 54 yards, while senior La'Rod King led the team in receiving with 10 receptions for 78 yards. Sophomore fullback D.J. Warren had his first career touchdown reception in the game. - Defensively, sophomore linebacker Alvin "Bud" Dupree led the team with 10 tackles, including three tackles for loss and a sack. Junior linebacker Avery Williamson had seven tackles and a pass breakup in the game. Freshman defensive lineman Farrington Huguenin made his first career start in the game, blocking a PAT and recording two quarterback hurries.
Men's basketball - The Kentucky men's basketball team charted a pair of victories over instate foe Morehead State and LIU Brooklyn this week at home in Rupp Arena to extend the nation's longest home winning streak to 55 games. - The freshman trio of Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel led the way for the Cats. Goodwin had a career-high 28 points against Morehead State and then nearly had the second triple-double in school history against LIU with a team-high 22 points, and career-highs of nine points and nine rebounds. - Poythress had two 20-point efforts to run his consecutive 20-point outings to four to become the first UK freshman to achieve the feat since Dwight Anderson in the 1978-79 season. - Noel averaged 13.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, dished out nine assists, and had 11 blocks in two victories for the Wildcats.
Volleyball - The Kentucky volleyball team concluded the regular season with a pair of sweeps on the road at Missouri and Auburn this week. - Senior Whitney Billings led the way with more than four kills per set including notching her 16th double-double of the season with 12 kills and 12 digs at Auburn. Senior Stephanie Klefot had 28 digs and added nine assists in the two wins, while freshman Kayla Tronick had six or more kills in both wins. - Kentucky finishes the season with 20 victories and has logged 20 or more wins in five of the last six seasons under Craig Skinner. - UK has advanced to the NCAA Tournament for an unprecedented eighth-consecutive season making Skinner the only coach in school history to lead his team to the field of 64 in each of his seasons at the helm. - UK is hosting the first and second round games of the NCAA Tournament at Memorial Colieseum on Friday and Saturday. Women's basketball - No. 9/8 Kentucky improved to 4-1 with commanding wins over Morehead State and USC Upstate last week. The Wildcats defeated the Eagles on Friday 73-37 and took a 100-34 win over the Spartans on Sunday. - UK has extended its home winning streak to 24, the third-longest winning streak in school history, and its winning streak over nonconference opponents at home improved to 34. - Four players scored in double figures vs. Morehead led by junior Samarie Walker, who was named the MVP of the second annual "Terry Hall Memorial Classic" after posting her fourth career double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds. - Senior All-America candidate A'dia Mathies followed with 11 points, while sophomores Azia Bishop and Bria Goss added 10 points each. Bishop and junior DeNesha Stallworth grabbed 10 rebounds apiece as UK outrebounded the Eagles 63-21. The 63 rebounds were just three shy of the school record. - Against USC Upstate, Mathies led all scorers in the 100-34 rout of the Spartans by scoring a game-high 17 points. She climbed to No. 7 on UK's all-time scoring list with 1,508 career points and is No. 6 on the steals list with 264. Walker again had an impressive outing as she posted 13 points, four blocks, three steals, three rebounds and two assists in just 23 minutes of action. - All 13 players scored at least two points as UK improved to 37-0 when scoring 100 points or more.