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."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, October 6:
Volleyball: Morgan Bergren
Sophomore setter Morgan Bergren led UK's offense to a pair of sweeps against SEC foes. Bergren dished out 10.5 assists per set while leading UK to a .391 hitting percentage combined in two victories well over UK's season average of .247. Bergren had seven kills of her own on a .333 clip, but it was her serving that was masterful. The sophomore had five aces on the weekend for an average of .83 per outing. She also contributed six blocks on the weekend and averaged 1.00 per set, second only to reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Week Alexandra Morgan's 1.09.The three aces she posted vs. Tennessee is a career-high total.
Men's soccer: Brad Doliner
Senior Brad Doliner had the best game of his career in leading Kentucky to a thrilling 2-1 overtime win at Old Dominion ... Doliner had his first career two-goal game, including netting the golden goal in the 98th minute to seal the win and adding a go-ahead score early in the second half ... Doliner now has four goals and one assist - his first career goals - with two game winners, 19 shots and 10 shots on goal ... A native of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Doliner leads C-USA in conference games only in points (six), goals (three), goals per game (1.50), shots per game (four) and game-winning goals (one), also ranking second in shots (eight) ... Doliner's first goal of the game at ODU came as a penalty kick tally in the 52nd minute, his second consecutive game with a PK goal ... After UK allowed the tying goal in the 77th minute, Doliner struck for the golden goal in the 98th frame, a laser from the edge of the 18-yard box, lifting UK to the thrilling win ... A selection to the Gamecock Classic All-Tournament Team earlier in the year, Doliner has played throughout the lineup for UK as a versatile weapon, seeing starts at center back, outside back, outside midfield, holding midfield and forward.
Men's soccer: Callum Irving
Sophomore goalkeeper Callum Irving had a breakout game in between the pipes at Old Dominion on Friday night, equaling his career high with six saves in leading UK to a 2-1 win in overtime ... Irving made all of his saves after halftime, including four in the second half and a pair of thrilling saves in overtime ... Irving had a save with a minute remaining in regulation after the ball bounced curving off the far post, keeping the well-struck, curving ball from crossing the end line ... A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Irving also made a tremendous, diving save on a hard-hit offering in the second half ... "There were a couple of times today that I was sure the ball was in the goal and he came up with the save," UK head coach Johan Cedergren said postgame. "There were a couple of times when there were cleats flying around his head and he did not back down." ... On the year, Irving has started five games with a 1.18 goals-against average, saving 10 and owning two clean sheets.
Volleyball: Jackie Napper
Junior Jackie Napper led the defensive effort for the Wildcats in a 2-0 week that included two sweeps over SEC foes. Napper opened the week with a career-high 18 digs for a three-set match, while also contributing five assists and a career-high two aces. She followed that performance with 16 scoops vs. Tennessee while adding three assists and a kill. It was her third kill of the season. The 34 digs in back-to-back three-set matches is a career-high for six sets. She registered a .950 serve-receive percentage for the weekend, while helping lead UK's offense to a .391 hitting clip for the two victories.
Women's soccer: Zoe Swift
Freshman Zoe Swift continued her prolific freshman season, scoring just one minute into the match on Sunday to give No. 19 Kentucky the early 1-0 lead on Sunday atVanderbilt. The Naperville, Ill., native then assisted on the game-winning goal just two minutes later, as she gave a pass off to Arin Gilliland, who struck the back of the net in the fourth minute. The multi-point game was Swift's third of the season, and the second time she has scored three points in a single game in her career.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson had an outstanding weekend for the Cats en route to a pair of sweeps over conference opponents. Thomasson opened the weekend with eight kills and 10 digs in the victory over Ole Miss. She followed that performance with the first errorless match of her career with six kills on a career-high .545 hitting clip vs. Tennessee. She also added a pair of assists and a career-best three service aces. Furthermore she totaled seven digs. For the weekend she ranked second on the squad in kills, hitting percentage, aces, digs and points. She was perfect from the serve-receive line, being served a team-high 22 times and did not commit a single error. Her 2.33 kills per set on a .444 clip is significantly improved over her season averages of 1.61 kills per set on a .196 hitting clip.
Craig Skinner hadn't used a timeout all weekend. Through three sets of a Friday victory over Ole Miss and the first two against Tennessee on Sunday, Kentucky was dominant so he didn't need to.
But as UK looked to finish off a second sweep in three days, the rival Lady Volunteers wouldn't go away. When Tennessee closed to within 18-17 in the third, Skinner finally called a timeout.
Displeased with the drop-off in his team's play from the opening two sets, Skinner called the Cats to the sideline. They reacted well to his message, scoring seven of the next nine points to salt away another win.
"We were not very sharp in that third set 'til the end," Skinner said. "It's the level of concentration we have to have and the way we were playing, it was good, suffocating defense and I just felt like we let up a little bit in set three. So it was good to see us respond at the end."
UK got back to the way it had played all weekend to move to 12-3 on the season and a perfect 4-0 through the first two weekends of Southeastern Conference play. All told, the Cats outscored Ole Miss and Tennessee 150-86 in six sets - no easy feat against conference foes.
"I think the thing I'm most proud of is that we limited our hitting errors and we limited our mistakes on our side of the net," Skinner said. "We had a couple OK streaks, but for us to be efficient on what we we're doing I think is the most important thing in my opinion."
UK committed just 15 total errors on the weekend after hitting .348 on Sunday. Whitney Billings once again led the way with 13 kills, showing impressive awareness with a number of touch kills.
"We work on hitting off speed when you can't kill the ball," Skinner said. "We need to know where the open spots on the court are, if the block is up or if we don't have our feet to the ball. We did a good job of that this weekend. There were a couple spots we could take advantage of and our team knew the game plan, did a good job getting the ball in the right spot."
The Cats were similarly effective on serve, posting a season-high 10 aces.
"That was as much pressure as we've put on a team with our serve in a while," Skinner said. "And they have some very good passers on their team and I thought we did a nice job of hitting the zones that (assistant coach) Lindsey (Gray-Walton) was giving. Against good teams and as we go through the season, we're going to have to do that because you can't just align your block all the time. Your serve's got to give you opportunities to score."
If UK can duplicate that serving performance this weekend, it will be a major boost. The No. 19 Cats travel to face No. 3 Florida on Friday with an early edge in the SEC race on the line. The teams are among just three unbeatens left in the conference and UK is looking forward to the opportunity to play one of the nation's best teams.
"It'll be a fun match," Skinner said. "I know our team will take this week serious to prepare so I'm not going to worry about the effort in practice, but we just need to make sure we're focused on the right things."
Consistency has been UK's hallmark this season, particularly in recent weeks. The Cats have won seven straight matches and 19 of their last 20 sets in playing their best volleyball of the year.
"They seem to be ready to go each and every match," Skinner said. "I don't really sense and kind of different team depending on who we're playing, whether it's home or on the road and that's a good sign of senior leadership and our captains making sure that everybody's engaged."
The crowd set the tone even before the first serve.
With hundreds of fans making the short walk from their tents at Big Blue Madness campout outside, Memorial Coliseum was rocking. A "Blue-White" cheer pinged across the floor as Craig Skinner gathered his team for some final words before Kentucky's Southeastern Conference home opener against Ole Miss on Friday.
"If that doesn't get you pumped to play, I don't know what does," Skinner said.
The Wildcats took it from there.
No. 19 UK (11-3, 3-0 SEC) swept past the visiting Rebels in dominant fashion, leading for every point of a 25-13, 25-16, 25-8 victory, save for three ties early in the first and second sets. The Cats turned in one of their best offensive performances of the season, hitting .439 as a team and committing a season-low-tying five errors.
"Pretty much everything (was working)," Skinner said.
This season, Skinner has installed an offense that calls for more back-row attacks. In doing so, the Cats have a fourth potential attacker on any given play. The offense hasn't always run smoothly a month-plus into the season, but the Cats - winners of 16 of their last 17 sets - are clearly finding a rhythm.
"We've implemented a couple different plays and (setter) Morgan's (Bergren) doing a better job getting her feet to the ball, so we utilized some of the back row tonight which wasn't always effective but it makes the other team think about it," Skinner said. "It's continuing to get better and I want to make sure we continue to have that as an option so we have at least four attackers on every rotation."
Even though Bergren has plenty of options, she still looks frequently to Whitney Billings. The senior seems intent on defending her SEC Player of the Week after tallying a match-high 12 kills while hitting a scorching .600 on Friday.
"The thing I'm most pleased about with Whitney is her concentration and effort in practice," Skinner said. "Every day she brings it and is ready to go, very focused on what we're trying to accomplish and that is translating into matches. She had another great match tonight."
Billings - a two-time all-conference selection - has been through the rigors of SEC play before. As UK wrapped up nonconference play, she knew the Cats would be in for a different kind of test in facing familiar SEC foes every Friday and Sunday. Three matches and three wins in, Skinner likes the way his team is responding.
"Different in each match," Skinner said, "but the mental concentration and toughness on the road at Auburn and Alabama and then for us to be able to get up 2-0 and the way we were playing for us to stay mentally aggressive and in tune with what was going on in the third set was a great job by our team."
Now UK will look to keep the momentum going against rival Tennessee on Sunday.
Alexandra Morgan won SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors after posting 17 blocks in wins over Auburn and Alabama. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Ten days ago, the Kentucky volleyball team wrapped up nonconference play. After the Wildcats swept Morehead State, Craig Skinner was happy, telling reporters that his team had met its goal of an 8-3 record entering the Southeastern Conference regular season.
Skinner, however, was not content.
"I feel like our blocking still needs to get better," Skinner said on Sept. 23. "In the SEC it's going to be a little more physical and people hitting the ball pretty hard, so we gotta slow the ball down at the net."
Over the four days the Cats had to prepare for a two-game road swing at Auburn and Alabama, Skinner turned that feeling into something more substantial.
"We challenged them to one-on-one competition between you and the attacker and then we did some technical things throughout the week to work on it," Skinner said.
It wasn't that UK did anything drastically different in practice. The Cats just put more of a focus on blocking and accepted the challenge to be more physical at the net.
"It's kind of like you against the other girl on the other side of the net and either she's going to get a kill or you're going to block it," senior Alexandra Morgan said. "A lot of times getting a huge block is more important than getting a huge kill and more rewarding for both the blocker and the team."
All that work, well, it worked.
UK won six of seven sets in taking a pair of matches in Alabama largely on the strength of its defense, and more specifically its blocking. The Cats had 26 total team blocks in the two wins - the most they have had in back-to-back matches all season - and Skinner called UK "a completely different team" in that area.
Morgan - playing in her home state - had 17 blocks on her own en route to receiving SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
"I was excited," Morgan said of the award. "I kind of struggled with blocking earlier in the preseason, so I was glad to get a lot of blocks these last few games and glad I could help my team."
Morgan's effect, as well as that of the entire block, was felt much more than in just the numbers themselves. A good volleyball defense requires players at the net and back-line defenders work in concert, and the Cats continue to make strides.
"Everyone knows that we're not going to block every single ball," Morgan said. "So we set up our defense with diggers around the block so if the blockers don't get a block, all the diggers should be in position to dig the ball to the best of their abilities."
UK's diggers were on their game this past weekend, particularly in the Friday-night win over Auburn. The Cats had 60 digs against the Tigers, most ever for a three-set match during the Skinner era.
"If we just got touches our diggers were doing a great job of picking us up as well," Morgan said. "It was a complete team effort that did it, not just the solo blocking."
UK will be looking to replicate that this weekend as it opens its SEC home slate against Ole Miss on Friday at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum. The Cats have been hard at work trying to establish consistency with their defense, but took a break on Thursday evening to distribute an early dinner to fans at the Big Blue Madness campout.
"Kentucky fans are the best in the nation," Morgan said. "I know they're there for basketball and they want to see basketball players and they want to see the practice, but they love us out there. Anything Kentucky they love, so it's a lot of fun interacting with them."
The Cats are now hoping a number of those fans seeking tickets to Madness will make their way into Memorial to see a sport played with a slightly smaller ball. If they do, Skinner is convinced his team will have some new devoted followers.
"I think if they haven't seen a volleyball match, they'll walk out of here thinking, 'Wow, that was pretty cool,' " Skinner said. "I have no doubt in my mind that if they come out and see a high-level Division-I volleyball match on Friday night, that they'll have a whole different perception of what volleyball is."
With every new tent that pops up, "Tent City" grows to an unprecedented size.
As of 9:30 a.m. ET on Thursday -- barely 24 hours into the three-day campout for Big Blue Madness tickets -- approximately 755 tents have been set up on the grounds surrounding Memorial Coliseum. The 2013 campout continues to distance itself from the previous record set in 2012, when 595 tents were erected at the final Friday afternoon count.
More than 60 new tents were set up since the last official count, with nearly all being directed across the street to Stoll Field.
Campers got a pleasant wake-up call on Thursday, as coaches and players from the Kentucky volleyball team made the rounds with McDonald's breakfast. The Wildcats are hoping campers help create a home-court advantage for their home match vs. Ole Miss on Friday night, as all fans showing the picture below at the Memorial ticket windows will receive free admission for as many as four people.
Social special - FREE admission for up to 4 by showing this picture at the ticket windows this weekend! RT pic.twitter.com/X87oo8Q8qV