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
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, September 29:
Volleyball: Whitney Billings
Senior Whitney Billings was Kentucky's impact player en route to a 3-0 week which included a pair of SEC victories on the road. Billings logged a pair of double-doubles, while reaching double-figures in the kills' column in each of the three wins. Her six blocks in the win at Alabama marked a season-high. The 17 kills was a season-best for a three-set match in the sweep of Auburn. In the two road victories in league play, Billings averaged 4.43 kills per set on a sizzling .377 hitting percentage. She also added 3.14 digs per frame and 1.43 blocks per stanza. The .448 hitting percentage against the Crimson Tide marked a season-best in a four-set match.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan was terrific for the Cats in a 3-0 week. Morgan averaged 2.10 kills per set while hitting on a .472 hitting percentage. She added 17 blocks and 11 digs for the week for an average of 1.10 digs and 1.70 blocks per frame. Her nine blocks in the win at Auburn marked a season-high and just one off her career-best of 10. The nine blocks was also just one rejection shy of a single-match record in UK history for a three-set match. In the two SEC wins, Morgan averaged 2.14 kills on .429 hitting. She added a squad-best 2.14 blocks per stanza in helping UK to a pair of wins in her hometown state.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, September 22:
Volleyball: Morgan Bergren
Sophomore Morgan Bergren led the Wildcats to their most complete offensive performance of the season in a sweep at Lipscomb. Bergren directed the UK offense to 40 kills on a .522 hitting clip, while the Blue and White committed just five errors as a unit in three sets of action. Bergren found seven different players for at least three or more kills. Bergren had six kills herself on a .556 hitting clip. She also contributed six digs and a trio of blocks in the win.
Women's soccer: Kayla King
Kayla King recorded her fourth shutout of the 2013 season on Friday night, making six saves en route to leading the Wildcats to the 1-0 win over Auburn. King dropped her season-low GAA to .079, as she led Kentucky to itsseventh-straight win on the year. King was forced to shot 12 Auburn shots, and a barrage of chances in the final stages of the match, as she helped Kentucky keep a clean sheet for the fifth time of the year. Kentucky is now 3-0-0 inone-goal matches this season.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan was spectacular in UK's 3-0 sweep at Lipscomb on Saturday. She registered a team-high six blocks for an average of 2.00 blocks per stanza in the win. Her presence at the net flustered the Bison into a .089 hitting percentage and the home team did not hit above .100 in two of three sets. She also contributed offensively with six kills on a dazzling .750 hitting percentage.
Women's soccer: Stuart Pope
Stuart Pope connected with Arin Gilliland forPope's team-leading eighth goal of the season in the 27th minute to give UK the win. The goal for Pope was her sixth in the last seven matches since being moved up to an attacking center midfielder.
Through nine matches of nonconference play, Kentucky seemed intent on giving fans their money's worth. The Wildcats played four five-set matches, including two in the span of five days in hosting Louisville, Pepperdine and Minnesota.
But to close out pre-conference play, the Cats didn't want any part of those marathon matches. On Saturday, they swept pass Lipscomb on the road. To follow it up, UK did the same at home against Morehead State.
Though Monday against in-state Morehead may not have gone the distance, the experience of playing those kings matches laid the groundwork for the 25-18, 25-21, 28-26 victory.
"Winning those tight five-game matches has helped us realize that we have to close at the end of games," setter Morgan Bergren said. "We can't let things extend on and on. We really needed to come out and finish those close ones tonight."
And finish the Cats did.
No. 18 UK (8-3) went on runs of 6-0, 6-2 and 9-4 to close out the three sets, turning close games into comfortable wins in the first and second and overcoming a 22-19 deficit in the third. Just a few weeks ago, the Cats easily may have faltered, paving the way for yet another five-setter, but no more.
"That's a pleasing part of this match for sure, and I thought our concentration level went way up when we got to point 20," head coach Craig Skinner said. "That's a sign of a mature team and a competitive group."
Leading the way was Bergren, the junior who has taken hold of the setter position. Athletic and tall, Bergren adds a dimension that changes the way UK plays and the way opponents play UK. That was particularly true on Monday.
Bergren had five of her seven kills in the first set on well-time dumps, forcing Morehead to account for her. That, in turn, opened up the rest of the floor for her teammates.
"It really got them paying attention to me," Bergren said. "I noticed I had more one-on-ones outside and just mixing it up I was able to go back to it later on because they stopped jumping on me. It was good to get involved early on just to get the one-on-ones outside."
From there, Bergren capitalized by dishing out 38 assists.
Whitney Billings led the UK attack with 13 kills, adding 14 digs for her 36th-career double-double. A senior, Billings has been through the transition from nonconference play to the Southeastern Conference and she's confident in UK's position.
"I feel pretty good about going into conference," Billings said. "We played some really good teams preseason that's prepared us for going into conference. We've played some close matches, so we know if we're in that situation in the conference, we know what we have to do."
Skinner, ever the coach, sees plenty of room for improvement, though even he admits the first month of the season has been a success.
"Well, we set a goal to be at least 8-3 in pre-conference so we're on track," Skinner said. "I feel like our blocking still needs to get better. 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. I think this group's chemistry is pretty good and I think that's really important in a long conference season."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, September 15:
Volleyball: Whitney Billings
Senior Whitney Billings began the week with 11 digs in a win over Louisville to become the sixth player in program history to amass 1,000 career kills and digs, and the first since the inception of the 25-point rally scoring era. She contributed nine kills in the win narrowly missing out on a double-double effort. In the upset-victory over No.4 Minnesota (the highest ranked opponent defeated in the Craig Skinner era), Billings was unstoppable. She went off for 25 kills on a blistering .467 hitting percentage. The hitting percentage is the highest in her career for a five-set match where she tallied 15 or more kills. With the 25 hammers she became the first player in the 25-point rally scoring era to have two matches of 25 or more kills in a single season. She also picked up 12 digs in the victory for her 35th career double-double effort. She had a season-high five blocks and was perfect from the serve-receive line as the Gophers attacked her 23 times. In the loss to Pepperdine, she reached double-figures in the digs column for the sixth time this season, while also posting a season-best three service aces.
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
Arin Gilliland scored seven points on the weekend, netting two goals and adding three assists in the two matches. Gilliland scored 10 seconds into the Wildcats 4-2 win over WVU, and also added another goal and two assists. Gilliland was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week, and also named to the TopDrawerSoccer National Team of the Week.
Volleyball: Jackie Napper
Junior libero Jackie Napper has found her rhythm in her new position as she led the Wildcats in digs for the week with 3.85 per set. She logged a .966 serve-receive stat line, while registering double-figure dig efforts in every contest. She opened the week with 15 scoops against her hometown rival, Louisville. She also added four assists and an ace. Against Pepperdine she totaled 11 digs. She saved her best for last in helping UK to the biggest upset since 1993 with a career-high 24 dig performance. She coupled that with five assists and an ace. The Gophers served at her 28 times and she registered a perfect 1.000 serve-receive percentage. With the 50 digs on the weekend, she has now tallied 656 career digs which is the fourth-highest total in the 25-point rally scoring era for UK.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson continued to provide a spark on the floor for the Wildcats as UK upset No. 4 ranked Minnesota and Louisville who is receiving votes in the AVCA poll. The week began with a career-high 13 kill, 16-dig performance in the victory over in-state rival Louisville. She then continued her streak of 10-or more dig matches with 10 scoops in the loss to Pepperdine. In the upset victory over the Golden Gophers, Thoamsson registered her fourth double-double in five matches with 10 kills and 10 digs, while also adding a pair of blocks. She was served at 41 times in the three matches, and did not make a single error. She averaged 2.08 kills per set, good for third on the team. Here 3.08 digs per frame was second only to UK's starting libero. Her 2.58 points per game ranked third on the squad.
Kentucky upset fourth-ranked Minnesota in a five-set thriller in Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
When he put Kentucky's 2013 volleyball schedule together, Craig Skinner knew his team would be put to the test this week.
Archrival Louisville was up first on Tuesday. Three days later, the Wildcats would have to turn around and host perennial power Pepperdine. To cap it all off, UK would take on Minnesota, the nation's fourth-ranked team.
Predictably, there were ups and downs.
UK defeated U of L in a five-set thriller to get it going, coming back from a set down and playing through 89-degree heat inside Memorial Coliseum. Pepperdine would then bring the Cats back down to earth with a decisive sweep on Friday, leaving serious doubt about whether UK would be to hang with the unbeaten Golden Gophers less than 24 hours later.
Not only would the Cats compete, they would win. In doing so, they delivered one of the most memorable moments of the Skinner era.
The No. 19 Cats (5-3) pounced on their opponents, taking the first set 25-18 and energizing the crowd of 1,586. Expectedly, Minnesota responded, winning the second set. UK, however, wouldn't wilt, winning the third, narrowly losing the fourth and dominating the fifth, 15-8.
"Just a heck of an effort," Skinner said of the win over Minnesota, the highest-ranked team UK has defeated during his tenure. "We were very aggressive tonight and followed the game plan to a T and players just stepped up and made plays. You gotta make individual plays against great teams and that's what we did tonight."
Making more than her share of individual plays was Whitney Billings. The senior All-American had 12 digs and 25 kills, hitting a blistering .467 and committing just four errors in the process.
"I just went out there and just played my game," Billings said. "I wasn't thinking about anything. I was thinking about now and I wasn't thinking about the next point, I wasn't thinking about the last point. I was just going for it basically."
That's perhaps the most impressive thing about Billings' night: She surprised no one by doing it.
"Whitney played like herself," Skinner said. "She played free, she played aggressive. She's capable of big things and she really performed tonight for us."
Billings, though, was hardly the only Wildcat to deliver on Saturday night.
Lauren O'Conner had a career-high 18 kills. Anni Thomasson tallied her fourth double-double with 10 kills and 14 digs. Jackie Napper had a career high of her own with 24 digs. Running the show was setter Morgan Bergren, who bested her previous high with 55 assists and added 10 digs.
"We were consumed with playing for each other and not thinking about our individual roles," Skinner said. "When we get consumed with how we're going to play for each other, we allow ourselves to play at a higher level. Probably one word to describe that would just be aggressive and live with the outcome."
That's all Skinner was asking for heading into the match. Less than a day removed from seeing his team play far below its potential against Pepperdine, Skinner just wanted the Cats to let it fly. They certainly did that.
"I think it was a hard-fought game, honestly, from the beginning until the end," Billings said. "Before we even went out there, we knew we had to give it our all because they weren't going to give it to us. They didn't give it to us; we went out there and took it."
Even after the Friday-night loss, Skinner knew UK was capable of this kind of performance. In fact, he drew up a challenging schedule hoping to bring it out of his team. With play in the always-challenging Southeastern Conference not far away, the Cats now have incontrovertible proof of what they can do when they're clicking.
"To me, the biggest thing is it builds our confidence and allows our players to understand the level we can play at," Skinner said. "I'm proud of these guys the way they stepped up and I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to get in the gym with these guys because they're fun to coach."
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."