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Cats top Cards in hotly contested battle

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Freshman Anni Thomasson had a double-double in her first-ever match against Louisville, a five-set UK win. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Freshman Anni Thomasson had a double-double in her first-ever match against Louisville, a five-set UK win. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When Kentucky and Louisville get together on the volleyball court, it's a pointless exercise to try to predict the winner.

The only thing you can be certain of is that it will be a battle.

"I don't know what it is," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "Four out of the last six have gone five (sets). It's a battle and you can throw out records, you can throw out the last match, you can throw out statistics and it always just seems to be a real competition. You see a lot of emotions, a lot of adrenaline, a lot of nerves and tonight was no exception."

It certainly was not.

The outcome was in doubt until the final moments, but the No. 19 Wildcats (5-2) took down the visiting Cardinals (2-4) in five sets. In a seesaw affair, UK fell behind 1-0 before winning the second and third sets. U of L would answer in the fourth, but a 5-0 run in the fifth closed it out for the Cats.

"I feel like we left everything out there and we knew that all of us were going to win that game," said senior Alexandra Morgan, who tied for the team high with 13 kills. "We knew that we were going to fight our hardest for every point."

Tuesday evening's match, with its momentum swings and emotional moments, could be figuratively described using the word heated, but the term is even more fitting in a more literal sense. With outside temperatures reaching the low 90s earlier in the day and 1,888 fans in Memorial Coliseum for the rivalry showdown, event staff reported the temperature on the floor was around 90 degrees throughout.

"I didn't even play and it felt like I lost about six pounds out there with the heat and tried to drink as much water as possible," Skinner said.

Skinner said both teams' setters had the toughest task in coping with the heat, as perspiration from passes made for a slippery volleyball. UK's Morgan Bergren managed a game-high 51 assists anyway, applying her experience practicing indoors during the summer.

"We do practice in it a lot," Shelby Workman said. "We're used to it. It's definitely not been that hot in a while, but we're kind of more prepared. We know what to expect. We worked in it in August in 100-degree weather, so we've just got to fight through it. We don't have another option."

The Cats had more than just heat to fight through against U of L. Using a more aggressive approach, the Cardinals got off to a blistering start in taking the first set, 25-17. UK responded in the second, building a 24-18 lead. Louisville, however, would score the next five points to create a few tense moments, but UK avoided a 2-0 hole by taking the next point.

"We could have packed it in there when they got it to 23 and we got it done," Skinner said. "Those are big moments."

More big moments awaited after Louisville dominated the fourth set to force a decisive fifth. The two teams traded points throughout the middle of the set, but UK rode a wave of emotion during that match-ending run.

Thomasson committed an attack error that gave the Cardinals an 11-10 lead, but redeemed herself two points later with the kill - her career-best 13th of the match - that would give UK the lead for good.

"I don't think she fears much and she thrives in those situations," Skinner said. "That's what competitors do."

Anni Thomasson added a team-best 16 digs - also a career high - in the match, which served as her initiation into the UK-U of L rivalry.

"It's intense, for sure," Thomasson said. "I've never really been on a team that wanted to win as much as this team does. Just seeing all the emotion from the girls with this game is just unreal."

UK's will to win has been on display over the past five days, as the Wildcats have won a pair of five-set matches to bookend four victories to open their home season. Skinner knows there's no substitute for a proven ability to produce in those situations.

"It's a lot of experience because you can't create that in practice," Skinner said. "You can't create being up big in a set and winning. You can't create going down big in the fourth and then coming back in the fifth. For us to weather the storm and win the last two five-setters we've been in says a lot about the toughness of these guys when it matters."

Skinner just hopes UK's next five-setter comes in more comfortable temperatures.

"I didn't," Skinner said when asked whether he ever considered loosening his tie, "but I saw an ice bucket behind the bench and I was thinking about sticking my head inside it."

Video: UK-U of L volleyball highlights

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Video: 2013 volleyball intro

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Volleyball bracing for emotions of U of L rivalry

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Jackie Napper leads UK into a match with Louisville -- her hometown school -- after winning Kentucky Classic MVP honors this weekend. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Jackie Napper leads UK into a match with Louisville -- her hometown school -- after winning Kentucky Classic MVP honors this weekend. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Craig Skinner has coached in his share of rivalry matchups.

He's patrolled the sidelines as Kentucky has battled for Southeastern Conference supremacy with the likes of Tennessee and Florida. He has been there as UK resumed its annual series with Louisville in 2009.

Based on that experience, Skinner has come to grips with the fact that there's only so much he can control when it comes to his team's psyche in those kinds of matches.

"I guess I've probably given up trying to temper emotions because I don't know if it's possible in a rivalry match," Skinner said.

On Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET, UK (4-2) will host U of L (2-3) for the fifth time since the rivalry's return. Winners of four straight matches - including a perfect weekend en route to a Kentucky Classic title last weekend - the No. 19 Wildcats look to earn bragging rights in Memorial Coliseum. The all-time series between the two schools is knotted at 25-25, with both schools winning twice since 2009.

Before the first serve, Skinner won't try to play the just-another-match card with his team.

"It's obviously going to be emotional and exciting," Skinner said. "The thing I usually tell the team is I don't know where your first five swings are going to go because there's going to be adrenaline, but let's settle down after that and play some good volleyball."

In recent years, the volleyball played between Kentucky and Louisville has only gotten better.

UK, of course, has reached eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments under Skinner's guidance and continues to take steps forward as a program each season. U of L, meanwhile, has made the postseason each of the last three years, including in 2012 when the Cardinals won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles.

The rebirth of the rivalry has coincided with unprecedented growth of the sport in the Bluegrass. More and more youngsters are playing volleyball in the state, feeding talent to programs like UK, U of L, Western Kentucky and Morehead State and fueling interest.

"The amount of people participating in volleyball here is phenomenal," Skinner said. "The amount across the state, obviously, is good and obviously the college programs are doing well, so it's one of the premier rivalries in our sport across the country. And I think (Tuesday) night will be no different."

A year ago, a record crowd of 5,007 packed the KFC Yum! Center for U of L's four-set win over Kentucky. Thousands turned out as UK hosted back-to-back matches vs. Louisville in 2010-11. The home team has won all four matches between the two teams since 2009.

"The crowds have always been phenomenal," Skinner said. "I think last year in Louisville there was over 5,000 people. Our place was a big crowd two years ago and three years ago and I expect the same."

Louisville native Jackie Napper will play the match in search of her second in three years over her hometown school. She played against U of L each of the last two seasons, but will take on a different role this time around. She is now UK's libero, succeeding  fellow Louisville native Stephanie Klefot.

Napper's presence has been vital during UK's ongoing winning streak, but Skinner is now looking for even more from the junior.

"Jackie's a very confident player," Skinner said. "She's very competitive. She serve-receives as well as anybody in the country and she's a great leader. Her whole team has a lot of respect for her and I think opponents do too. Jackie knows this: She needs to dig a few more balls. But serve-receive, she's as good as anyone we've had in that position."

Louisville - having lost a number of key contributors - is a different team this year, but UK's ability to serve-receive remains important. More important, however, is the simple fact that UK-U of L is a volleyball rivalry once again.

"It's good we've played this rivalry again since '09 and it's great for the sport," Skinner said. "Really glad we're playing it and there's really good volleyball all over this part of the country, so it's good to have this type of match in our house. It'll be another exciting match tomorrow night. Louisville's very athletic and our players will definitely be ready to go."

Sept. 8 Performances of the Week

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Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, September 8:

Volleyball: Jackie Napper

Junior Jackie Napper was tabbed the Most Valuable Player and earned Kentucky Classic All-Tournament teams in helping guide UK to a trio of wins this week. Napper averaged 3.91 digs and 1.64 assists per set in the three victories. She logged a season-high 19 digs in a win over VCU, while narrowly becoming the first defensive player to earn a double-double in school history with nine assists in the match. She notched 16 digs in a three-set victory over ETSU. In the final win of the weekend, Napper dished out six assists while accumulating eight digs in the victory over ETSU. Furthermore, she posted a kill in the win over VCU, her first of the year.

Women's soccer: Stuart Pope

Kentucky capped off its second-straight weekend sweep on Sunday, striking for two first-half goals and an extra in the second half to tally the 3-1 win over the Dayton Flyers. UK got goals from Alex Carter, Zoe Swift and Stuart Pope. The goal for Pope was the fourth-straight game that she has scored in, as she has five goals in the last four games. Pope was named the SEC Player of the Week last week by

Volleyball: Anni Thomasson

Freshman Anni Thomasson had a breakout weekend for the Wildcats en route to earning Kentucky Classic All-Tournament team honors. In the opening victory vs. VCU, Thomasson was utilized as a defensive specialist playing in the back row exclusively. The following morning, Thomasson received her first career start and played all six rotations. She delivered her first career double-double effort with a career-high 12 kills on a blistering .435 hitting clip. She notched 13 digs and added a block, while turning in a perfect performance in the serve-receive game. She remained in the starting lineup for the win over ETSU and notched seven kills, while adding eight digs and a career-high four blocks. For the week, she averaged 1.73 kills per set (despite only playing in the front row for two of the three matches). She ranked third on the squad with 2.18 digs per stanza. 

Video: Skinner previews Louisville match

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Video: Highlights from volleyball's sweep of ETSU

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Volleyball's resilience on display in comeback win

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Kentucky's season is barely a week old, but the Wildcats found themselves in a familiar spot on Friday night.

Facing VCU, UK would need to win the fifth set to come out on top in its home opener. Just six days prior, the Cats fell in five to Illinois.

This time around, the Cats closed it out.

"We've been in this situation before and let it slip away," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "Inevitably, that's going to be in the back of your mind that we've been here before, how are we going to respond and we responded the right way."

After losing the first set and eventually falling behind 2-1 in the match, UK rallied to a 24-26, 25-15, 20-25, 25-19, 15-12 victory behind a team-best 14 kills by Lauren O'Conner and Whitney Billings' fourth double-double in as many matches. The Cats evened their record to 2-2 on the season in winning their second in a row, but it was never easy.

In fact, the visiting Rams (3-1) very well may have pulled off the upset if not for a two well-timed timeouts called by Skinner.

The first was in the fourth set, when UK trailed 17-15 and VCU needed just eight points to close it out. The Cats would respond by winning 10 of the next 12 points.

The second was in the fifth. This time, VCU led 8-5 and had all the momentum after winning three points in a row. UK would once again refuse to wilt out of the break, going on a 10-4 run to send the fans in Memorial Coliseum home happy.

"We challenged them a little bit," Skinner said. "You gotta step up and you gotta compete. It's about competing, and VCU has great competitors on that team. They weren't afraid of who we were or the environment or being on the road; they just competed and so we had to match that."

After dropping their first two matches of the season, the Cats have come to be defined by their resilience. They showed it in salvaging the final match of last weekend's Long Beach State Tournament on Sunday and it was once again on display Friday night.

UK was dominant in the second set to even the match at 1-1, but faltered in the third and to start the fourth. The Cats committed 11 third-set attack errors, then five more in the fourth as VCU built an 18-15 lead. Setter Morgan Bergren struggled to lead the attack and Shelby Workman, Lauren O'Conner and Sara Schwarzwalder combined for nine attack errors.

But as UK rallied, those four played key roles.

Bergren had eight of her match-high 36 assists on UK's final 23 points of the game to go with her seven kills.

"She made some really good decisions in the fifth game and maybe struggled with some decisions in the third and fourth, but in the fifth game she made the right choices and people put the ball away for her," Skinner said.

O'Conner, meanwhile, had three fifth-set kills.

"Lauren was huge tonight," Skinner said. "She struggled a little bit last weekend and we challenged her to step up because we need her and she's capable."

Workman and Schwarzwalder, both sophomores, accounted for four of UK's final eight points.

"It was good because they struggled a little bit in the middle of the match," Skinner said. "They came through at the end and, like I told them in the locker room, regardless of the situation, you've gotta keep grinding and grinding to win each point. Whether you've struggled before, this is the point we need to worry about. They did a good job of that."

Skinner will be looking for plenty more of that approach through the rest of the Kentucky Classic. After UK's match ended after 9 p.m. ET on Friday, the Cats will turn around and play two matches against Liberty and ETSU at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday.

Senior Whitney Billings registered double-doubles in each of UK's three matches last weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Senior Whitney Billings registered double-doubles in each of UK's three matches last weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Knowing the opposition Kentucky would be facing, Craig Skinner knew he was going to learn a lot about his team during the season's opening weekend.

He just didn't know how it would happen. With matches against one top-20 team and two more with strong cases to be ranked in three days, UK seemed as likely to sweep the weekend in Long Beach, Calif., as it was to lose three in a row.

It turned out UK was facing the possibility of the latter after dropping decisions to Florida State and Illinois on Friday and Saturday. But instead of wilting, the Wildcats showed their coach something.

"We didn't get the results that we wanted in the first two, but we improved every time we stepped on the floor and I was encouraged by that," Skinner said. "And also definitely encouraged by the fact that we lost two in a row and then came back and won so convincingly on Sunday. That was a pretty good sign of a mature, competitive team."

Just as encouraging was the way UK went about its business, even in defeat. In a 3-0 sweep against Florida State and a tough 3-2 loss to Illinois, Skinner saw a team that never wavered in its approach.

"One of the things that we've always stressed throughout the spring and then the preseason is that their demeanor is the same every point," Skinner said. "I felt that was the case this weekend regardless of whether we were up 2-1 or down in a set. They still had the same focus."

Carrying that focus into Sunday, UK played its best match of the weekend in taking down Long Beach State in three sets.

"I'm proud about the way we bounced back because we lost the first two," Whitney Billings said. "We did get better each match though, which is kind of unusual. We knew what we had to do; we were just putting it together."

As for her own game, Billings didn't need any time to get going. The senior outside hitter has had a decorated UK career - she was a First-Team All-Southeastern Conference honoree in both 2011 and 2012 and a Second-Team All-American according to Cobra Magazine in 2012 - but she was at another level last weekend.

She tallied three double-doubles in as many matches, highlighted by a career-best 26-kill performance against Illinois. Even going back to her pre-college days, Billings can't remember having that many kills in one night.

"She singlehandedly put us in position to beat Illinois," Skinner said. "Unfortunately we didn't get it done in the fifth game, but she was pretty good."

Billings' effort was borne partially out of necessity, as freshman Anni Thomasson and sophomores Shelby Workman and Kayla Tronick work to secure the left side of the UK attack that Ashley Frazier occupied a season ago.

"We have new people on the left side this year and I just feel like I need to step up and do what I need to do," Billings said.

In her final season, Billings says she's ready to carry a heavy load, and her current kills-per-set average of 4.45 suggests she may continue to do just that. Skinner, however, sees the kind of balance that has come to define UK volleyball in recent years developing as the season wears on.

"She's someone that's capable of doing that," Skinner said. "Is it something we want to do all the time? No, I'd like to have more balance in the offense and get more kills in other places. But it's nice to know that we can count on her to come up big for us when we need her because there are going to be a lot of matches where we're going to ask a lot of her."

Another match or two like that could be forthcoming this weekend as UK opens its home schedule with the Kentucky Classic on Friday and Saturday. The Cats will play an athletic VCU squad at 7 p.m. ET on Friday, then a pair of matches against Liberty and East Tennessee State on Saturday at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.

"It'll be important that we have the same focus each and every point throughout the weekend because mentally we have to stay engaged, stay in tune," Skinner said. "These teams are all potential NCAA Tournament teams and they're athletic. If we're not ready to go and not focused on each point, these teams are all capable of stringing together great sets and beating anyone this weekend."

But with limited time between matches, there's only so much that can be done to prepare. That's why UK has kept its focus internal this week.

"The first match, we can put a lot of energy into VCU," Skinner said. "After that, we definitely have to rely on what we're good at. We'll have some things that we'll try and focus on with each of the next two opponents, but it'll be definitely more important taking care of our side of the net."

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