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Kentucky looks to break through to the Elite Eight with a win over No. 1 Penn State Friday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky looks to break through to the Elite Eight with a win over No. 1 Penn State Friday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
If you didn't know any better, it would almost seem that Kentucky has been preparing for this Friday's Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Penn State since, well, they faced the No. 1 seed Texas in last season's Sweet 16.

Did Kentucky know it would be paired up in this year's bracket with the No. 1 seed for the second season in a row? No. But the Wildcats had the wherewithal to look ahead thinking that there might be a chance they could have success in the NCAA Tournament and eventually meet some of its top teams.

They loaded up in the non-conference portion of their schedule with a murderers row-like roster of competition. Kentucky faced tournament teams like Louisville, Nebraska and Oregon. Both Nebraska and Oregon are still alive in the Sweet 16 this season.

Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner would tell you that his team is battle-tested and that there isn't a situation this season that it hasn't been in. Playing the top team in the country on a neutral court is a new one, however, this season for the Wildcats. That just may play into their hands, knowing that they've faced top-ranked Nebraska on its home floor and coming dangerously close to upsetting the Cornhuskers on the road.

What Kentucky has been playing for is the experience and knowledge on how to handle tough situations like the one it will be in Friday night against Penn State at Mackey Arena on the campus of Purdue. The mixed results and the battles with some of the fiercest competition on the country will give Kentucky its best chance to upset the Nittany Lions.

"When you get to this point it is all about executing," said Skinner. "We've done our best all year to prepare us for these moments."

The players know what type of opportunity they had last season in the Sweet 16 to make a statement, and they believe they let one get away. Last year's team, however, didn't face one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country either.

While this year's matches will give UK a lot to draw on when it comes to different parts of Friday's match, the biggest influence could be that very Texas match that happened 363 days ago.

"The big thing about the situation that we're going into is it's one that we've already been in before playing Texas as first seed last year," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "We've been here before; we know how to handle it."

And the situation is not one that these players are even thinking about backing down from. They are ready to show the country what they are made of and that they can play with the best of the best.  For them, Friday night can't get here fast enough.

"When you're in the office on Monday and your players are saying, 'Can Friday just get here?' they're amped about the chance to get out and compete again," said Skinner. "I think that's really it. It's not necessarily who, what, where, it's just the chance to get out and compete again."

That attitude is the same approach the Cats have taken from the beginning of this year's tournament, if not even further back into the regular season.

Kentucky knows that in order to compete with any team that it has to take care of what it does and focus on the way it plays. Now is not the time to start changing things up, but rather continue to try and perfect the things that they already do well.

"It's a normal game day and nothing changes," said junior right side Whitney Billings. "It's Penn State and we know they are good, but we are going to keep doing the same thing that we've been doing which is focusing on the opponent."

It's the same message that Skinner has been preaching to his whole team, and based on their words, they've heard it loud and clear. Kentucky has built its identity, and now it's going to see if it's good enough to take down the Nittany Lions Friday night.

"We have to do what we do," said Skinner. "We can't really change who we are, how we go about things. We have a system. We have things we do well."

What Kentucky has done well in the tournament is serve tough and play great defense. Penn State is a team capable of blowing any team out of the gym with the type of athletes and physicality that it brings to the table. While it's easy to scout an offense, as Penn State has likely done extensively this week, it's almost impossible to game plan for a poised defensive team.

That's exactly what Kentucky has to offer on Friday night.

"I've always thought as a coach, whether this is who I've worked for or whatever it is, you can't prepare for a great defense," said Skinner. "You can prepare for a great offense, but a great defense is hard to prepare for. It's something we take a lot of pride in and work on every day."

Kentucky boasts the Southeastern Conference Libero of the Year in senior libero Stephanie Klefot. They also have the SEC's third-best blocking team, averaging 2.53 blocks per set, highlighted by junior middle blocker Alexandra Morgan who ranks sixth in the SEC with 1.08 blocks per set.

The Wildcats will also need to continue to serve tough to keep Penn State out of rhythm on offense. It's been a strong suit of theirs all season, as they averaged 1.47 aces per set. But in the tournament, they've turned up the pressure even more so. Against East Tennessee State, UK used five aces and tough serving attack to earn the 3-0 sweep. On Saturday, the Cats doubled that number with 10 aces against Ohio State to send themselves to West Lafayette, Ind., to take on Penn State.

With the match looming, the focus and energy will be at an all-time high this season for the Wildcats. It needs to be. It should be. Skinner knows what kind of opportunity lies ahead of he and his team, and he expects everyone to be up for the challenge when first serve flies at 5 p.m.

"They're excited, their adrenaline is pumping and we've been ready to play since Monday," said Skinner. "There's no question that they will be excited and that there will be some nerves. If there aren't nerves then I think there is something a little abnormal there.  

"We seem to rise to the occasions and rise to opportunity, and I expect nothing else."  


Video: Volleyball leaves Lexington for Sweet 16

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Video: UK Rewind weekend recap (Dec. 3)

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Kentucky Sports Report (week of Dec. 3)

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MEN'S BASKETBALL
- The Kentucky basketball team will play its final midweek contest in the month of December when the Blue and White takes on Samford on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET. Kentucky and Samford met for the first time a season ago with the Wildcats earning an 82-50 win.
- Freshman Archie Goodwin has logged four or more assists in four consecutive games including five against Baylor on Saturday. Classmate Alex Poythress leads the Southeastern Conference hitting .672 percent of his shots, while fellow freshman Nerlens Noel leads the league with 2.9 blocks per game.
- Samford enters the matchup owning a 2-7 overall record which includes a pair of losses to ranked foes in Louisville and Memphis.

VOLLEYBALL
- The Kentucky volleyball team advanced to its second straight Sweet 16 following wins over East Tennessee State and Ohio State in the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament. With back-to-back appearances in the round of 16, UK is one of just eight schools to achieve the feat. It's the first time in the Craig Skinner era that UK has won two matches in the tournament in consecutive years and the first time in program history since the 1987-88 seasons.
- Senior Ashley Frazier's 12 kills on .500 hitting sparked a 3-0 sweep of ETSU on Friday. Then it was a spectacular display of defensive fortitude that halted the high-octane attack of Ohio State. UK charted 11.5 blocks and picked up 55 digs to fluster the Buckeyes into a .213 hitting clip and no more than 14 kills in a set following the opening frame en route to a 3-1 win.
- Junior Alexandra Morgan had seven blocks in the win, and senior Stephanie Klefot logged 18 digs to lead the way vs. OSU. Sophomore Lauren O'Conner paced three attackers in double-figures with a team-high 16 kills, while junior Whitney Billings notched her 17th double-double of the season with 10 kills and 12 digs in the winning effort.
- Kentucky will move on to face No. 1 seed Penn State on Friday at 5 p.m. in the West Lafeytte Regional. It is the second-consecutive season UK will face the top overall seed in the tournament.

WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

- Kentucky improved to 6-1 with wins over Miami (Ohio) and No. 6/7 Louisville last week. Against the RedHawks, junior Bernisha Pinkett had a career day as she came off the bench to record her first career double-double. She set personal-bests with 21 points and 10 rebounds, while equaling her career-high with five assists. She became the first Wildcat to post a 20-point and 10-rebound game since Victoria Dunlap (22 pts/11 rbs) vs. Vanderbilt on March 5, 2011.
- Sunday's matchup at Louisville pitted two of the nation's top two teams as No. 9/8 UK traveled to No. 6/7 Louisville. It marked the first meeting with both teams ranked in the top 10 nationally, and it turned out to be quite the barnburner.
- Trailing by 14 points with 15:08 to play in the game, the Wildcats clawed back and charted one of the biggest comebacks in the Matthew Mitchell era. Led by junior DeNesha Stallworth's game-high 14 points, the Cats outscored the Cards 18-6 in the final 10 minutes, but the most valuable player of the game turned out to be one of the most unlikely players.
- Freshman point guard Janee Thompson, who did not see action in the first half and who was averaging just 5.2 points coming into the game, came off the bench to hit three straight critical free throws down the stretch and nail the go-ahead 3-pointer with 8.5 seconds to play. She ended with 13 points in just 16 minutes of action, giving the Cats their first win over the Cards on the road since 1999 and their first win over a top-10 foe on the road since defeating No. 8 Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, Ky., in 1991.

SWIMMING & DIVING
- The Kentucky diving team competed at the Miami Open last weekend in Oxford, Ohio in a field that included the Guangdong Provincial diving team from China.
- Junior diver Greg Ferrucci picked up a third-place score of 386.0 while senior John Fox earned a 322.4, good for fifth place in the 1-meter. Freshman Rebecca Hamperian earned a fifth-place score of 275.35. Sophomore Sarah Chewning earned sixth place with a final tally of 271.05 in the 3-meter.
- Sophomore Christa Cabot earned a career high score of 301.95 to take second place in the women's 1-meter. Junior Corey Cowger earned an NCAA Zone qualifying score of 326.45 on the 3-meter board.

Upcoming schedule

TUESDAY, DEC. 4
Men's basketball hosts Samford - 7:00 p.m.

THURSDAY, DEC. 6
Women's gymnastics Blue/White scrimmage - 6:00 p.m.

FRIDAY, DEC. 7
Volleyball vs. Penn State (West Lafayette, Ind.) - 5:00 p.m.
Women's basketball hosts DePaul (Rupp Arena) - 7:00 p.m.

SATURDAY, DEC. 8
Men's basketball hosts Portland - 12:00 p.m.
Track-indoor at Hoosier Open(Bloomington, Ind.) - 9:00 a.m.

SUNDAY, DEC. 9

Women's basketball hosts MTSU - 1:00 p.m.

Kentucky defeated Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet 16. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Kentucky defeated Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet 16. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky volleyball team accomplished a feat that it had not managed since the 1987-88 seasons when they defeated Ohio State Saturday night, 3-1. Dating back to the 1988 season, UK had never reached the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons.

Until Saturday night.

After Kentucky reached the round of 16 last season, hosting a regional for the first time the Craig Skinner era and facing No. 1 seed Texas, Kentucky will be heading back to its second straight regional. The Wildcats will be faced with an equally tough opponent, as they will be matched up with this season's No. 1 seeded Penn State.  But this time, UK won't have the luxury of playing in front of their home crowd.

The Big Blue Nation came out in full force in the first two rounds, and without them, Kentucky may have been in trouble.

"(The crowd) kind of helped us through with that second game and without them I don't know if we would have came back and won," said senior libero Stephanie Klefot. "You hear that "Go Big Blue" chant and you get chills and it gives you that momentum to go out there and kick their butt."

The crowd's energy mixed with team's emotion will send Klefot to the third Sweet 16 of her illustrious four-year career. That level of success is no longer just a privilege, but rather has become the expectation of Skinner's program.

"We set lofty goals at the beginning of the year," said Skinner. "I think as a program, that's what we want to be and what we want to do. The Sweet 16 is the next step."

But before Kentucky could ever think about heading to the West Lafayette, Ind. Regional, the Wildcats would have to go through the high-octane offense of Ohio State. By the looks of things in the first set, it looked like it might be a Big Ten Sweet 16 reunion.

The Buckeyes steamrolled Kentucky in the first set, 25-18. Outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary was a force offensively, and UK had no answers for her eight kills. After a 19-kill performance Friday night against Notre Dame, it looked like the Wildcats would be in for a long night much like the Fighting Irish suffered at the hands of OSU's outside hitters.

Kentucky struggled to execute the game plan that Skinner and his staff had laid out for them early on.

"We knew they were going to get a lot of swings," said Skinner. "We were trying to get our block position to slow them down and we weren't in the right spots. They made some great swings."

Set two was a crucial one for both teams. It looked like Kentucky was going to handily take the second frame to even things up at the break as the Cats jumped out to a 9-5 lead. Then Klefot went to the serving line and turned up the heat with a couple of aces to make it 13-8. A stuff block by the Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan combination made it 14-8, and before the Buckeyes knew it, they faced a six-point deficit.

The deficit didn't last long and the Buckeyes answered the bell. Before UK could blink, OSU had regained the lead at 21-20. Ohio State's six-point run put them at a comfortable 23-20 advantage. But the visitors got a bit too comfortable and it not only cost them the set, but potentially the match.

"It was rough because we had been rolling through that set and we were feeling pretty good," said Ohio State outside hitter Emily Danks. "It was just that moment of let up that they took control of the game."

Kentucky would not be denied facing a three-point deficit. Kentucky pulled to within one at 23-22, but OSU answered on a kill by outside hitter Mari Hole. Now Kentucky was faced with another OSU set point at 24-22.

Enter Whitney Billings.

Billings pulled the Wildcats once more to within one to keep hope alive with a kill at 24-23. Then she really changed the landscape of the set with some dynamite serving to get the Buckeyes out of rhythm. A Christine Hartmann and Morgan block tied it up at 24. Then Billings put the finishing touches on the set to complete the comeback with consecutive aces to give Kentucky the 26-24 victory to go into the locker room with a 1-1 tie.

When both teams came out for set three, it looked like there would be another entertaining and nail-biting set. The Wildcats built an early 5-2 lead off of a couple of Lauren O'Conner kills. Then Ohio State reeled off three in a row to tie it up at five. But Kentucky would take off shortly thereafter with a 6-2 run and never looked back.

The Cats continued to build on the momentum they had gained after an improbable second-set comeback, and OSU seemed to be defeated by Kentucky's physicality and tough serving attack.

"Really they won the serve and pass game," said Ohio State head coach Geoff Carlston. "Whoever won that was going to win the match and they did. Especially at the end of the second set and they kept it going in the third and fourth set and we didn't respond very well but I thought that was a little bit of a reaction of them finding a groove serving."

Kentucky would finish the night with a season-high-tying of 10 aces.

The Wildcats had really turned up the pressure defensively as well as continuing their hard, and well-placed serves. Kentucky would build a 23-15 lead before Billings put the exclamation point on the set with a thunderous kill down the line to give UK set point. Senior Ashley Frazier went to the line, pumped in a sharp serve that was overpassed to the Kentucky side of the net, and O'Conner used one of her team-high 16 kills to clean it up and give UK the 25-15 third set victory.

Ohio State and Kentucky played it extremely close through the opening stages of set four. Each team battled back and forth through the 7-6 mark with UK grabbing the edge. Neither team had held a lead bigger than one point. But OSU blinked first as Ohio State's Mari Hole, who finished with a team-high 16 kills, made a critical error to give UK the 8-6 advantage.

The Wildcats ran with it.

Kentucky had went on a 7-0 run to make it 11-6, and after OSU put another point on the board, UK went on a 8-2 run thanks to a long serving run by Klefot in the middle of the set. Her run gave UK the lead and Billings' run pushed Kentucky to a 15-8 margin, eventually turning into a 17-10 lead.

"I think we practice so much on our serving and we try to go back there and be aggressive and it is a lot harder to do when you are in a big game," said Klefot. "Craig (Skinner) told me to go back there and take a deep breath before you serve and that helps when you focus on a certain spot on the court then we normally get more aces."

Klefot would finish with a monster night, earning 18 digs, five aces and three assists. The five aces were a career high for the senior in her final match at Memorial Coliseum.

Kentucky would go on to finish off the Buckeyes by a final tally of 25-18 when senior setter Christine Hartmann topped of a huge night of her own with her fifth kill to go along with 42 assists, leading her team to a .278 hitting clip.

"I'm glad we are ending this home court with a win," said Hartmann. "Last year we left with a loss and it was a great loss but we learned from it. It is definitely an expectation for this program from here on out."

The task certainly gets tougher for Kentucky now, as UK heads to West Lafayette on Dec. 7 to face the No. 1 seed in Penn State. Ohio State, conference members of the Big Ten along with PSU, has faced the Nittany Lions multiple times this season with unfavorable results. The Buckeyes fell to Penn State twice this year, each ending in sweeps.

"I don't think anyone matches up real well against Penn State to be honest with you," said Carlston. "I think Kentucky is pretty physical but Penn State is a different animal right now.

"I think Kentucky if they get in a groove and they serve like they did against us that gives them a chance I think. It's going to be a good match, two real physical teams."

The Cats know what's ahead of them, however. They've seen the same situation play out in front of them. No matter whom they play, regardless of the seed or name on the jersey, Kentucky will be ready to play Friday night. Once again, back in the Sweet 16.

"It's an opportunity," said Skinner of facing Penn State. "Our team typically rises to the challenge of whoever's in front of us. We typically play better against better teams.

"We trust what we do, and consider each point as the most important point of the season. Like I said before the tournament, I like this team and can't wait to go into a match with them."

Highlights, postgame with Craig Skinner


Whitney Billings, Stephanie Klefot, Lauren O'Conner, Christine Hartmann




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