Craig Skinner stressed starting strong to the Kentucky volleyball team all week.
The Wildcats lost their regular-season finale to highly ranked Florida in five sets, largely due to a poor start, losing the first two sets before UK could even come up for air. Given the circumstances of the last outing, Skinner knew what to focus on in the practices leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
Yet coming off two straight losses -- albeit against the Southeastern Conference's top two teams -- few would have blamed UK for taking some time to hit its stride on Saturday given the losing streak, the pressure of hosting a first-round NCAA Tournament match and the 10-day layoff since its last match.
But Skinner's emphasis on maintaining focus from the first serve through the final kill of each set paid off in UK's straight-set win over Duquesne on Saturday evening.
While the Wildcats seemed to come out of the gates firing, so did the Dukes. In fact, Duquesne took the match's first multi-point lead at 10-8. Still Skinner was happy with his team's start to the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
"I was actually really happy (with) how aggressive we came out in set one," Skinner said. "You never know how you're going to come out so I thought we did a nice job being aggressive. We made a couple of errors but that's fine.
"We want to be aggressive and you have to play like that in the tournament ... (Duquesne) came out with purpose to win the match and they did a nice job of forcing us to be a little bit more intelligent with some of the things we did. Our defense picked up. (Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan) did a really nice job of following the game plan and hitting smart shots."
Indeed Skinner was pleased with how UK weathered Duquesne's blistering start, and as the first set entered its latter stages UK hit its stride.
Trailing 14-15 at a media timeout, UK then won four straight points. While Duquesne threw in some runs of its own down the first-set stretch, UK never looked back in winning the opening period 25-23 and dominating the next two en route toward advancing to Sunday's second-round matchup with Michigan State (4 p.m. ET).
"There's a lot of adrenaline, a lot of things going through your mind when you start the NCAA Tournament and I'm very pleased with how we got after it," Skinner said. "You can't really prepare for what the other team is going to do and how they're going to respond to the situation and it was neck and neck all the way through point 15 and I felt like our demeanor was the exact same in the first set as it was at the very end of the last set. That's important, and obviously very important against a very good Michigan State team tomorrow night."
Billings was a big reason UK was able to pull away midway through the first stanza and stay ahead from there. The first-team All-SEC selection had four kills and four assists in the first set and finished with a match-high 18, just two away from her season high for a three-set affair.
It comes as little surprise that in her post-match comments Billings emphasized the team's aggressive start, as all the Wildcats were clearly keyed in on starting strong given Skinner's talking points all week.
"We just realized that we had to get it going," Billings said of UK's run midway into the first set. "At some point in the game we have to just push on the gas and just go. So, we just kept going for it, like I said. We gained momentum at the end."
The senior stepped up to start her final postseason campaign. Billings' coach took notice of her leadership by example.
"Whitney has been fantastic the last two weeks," Skinner said. "Her demeanor and her competitive fire have been impressive to see as a coach and whether she's playing fantastic, okay, or not okay, she's the same and that's what you want out of a senior leader. (She is) someone that is driven and so she's done an impressive job and you really have to focus a lot on her to stop her.
"We'll expect that. Physically, she's always had the ability. Mentally, she is on a different level right now."
Both teams enter Sunday with fresh legs
While playing matches in back-to-back days in the non-conference season is common for SEC teams, once conference play begins most teams shift to a schedule of Friday and Sunday outings.
Thus the NCAA Tournament sub-regional format of matches in back-to-back days provides a challenge teams have not seen in the past few months.
Still, both teams had a relatively short Saturday as each earned a straight-set win.
Skinner previews matchup of similar styles
After focusing on NCAA Tournament prep for the past 10 days -- with an extra day thrown in as the first-round matches were postponed from Friday to Saturday due to inclement weather in the Lexington Area -- Skinner could finally turn his attention to a team other than Duquesne following Saturday's win.
Looking ahead to Michigan State, Skinner revealed that the two teams do a lot of things in similar fashion.
"Two very physical teams," Skinner said. "Two teams that kill the ball at a high percentage. Two teams with experience playing against very good competition so it's going to be a great matchup and it's going to be important for us to come out aggressively like we did tonight.
"I don't think Michigan State is a team that's going to give you a whole lot. You're going to have to earn your points, whether you're siding out or with your blocking defense after you serve. So, high-level match right here in the Coliseum and I know our kids can't wait to play again. It seems like we've been preparing for the first round for about six days but hopefully weather will let us play tomorrow."
In the life of college volleyball players, it doesn't get much busier than early December.
Like normal students, they have the end of the fall semester and approaching final exams to think about. Unlike normal students, their seasons are on the line.
For No. 15 Kentucky, the NCAA Tournament begins on Saturday against Duquense. With a week and a half since their last match, the Wildcats attacked their time off by honing their focus.
"We've gotten a lot better and we just need to stay focused on volleyball and getting better as opposed to worrying about other distractions that we could be going through right now," senior Alexandra Morgan said.
Those distractions come in many different forms.
"It's us-or-them time of year," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "There are so many things going with school, finals coming up, a lot of people wanting to come to matches that haven't been there yet, all kinds of social life and whatever it may be."
Skinner is asking his team to tune those things out for the next couple weeks.
"For us to eliminate those things so we can focus on getting our schoolwork done and then focusing on volleyball is very important and I'm glad Zan has taken that to heart," Craig Skinner said. "And I think all our team is just based on what our concentration level's been like at practice. I think they're very serious about performing well and they like competing with each other. That's a big part of it."
When he addressed the media on Wednesday, Skinner reported his team had had three strong days of practice in preparation for what he initially thought would be a Friday match. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas and inclement weather moved this weekend's matches back a day.
For a less experienced team, that delay might be a problem. The Cats, though, are well-accustomed to playing in win-or-go-home situations.
"You just can't create the atmosphere, a little extra pressure being in the NCAA Tournament," Skinner said. "It's us or them moving on after each match."
Skinner is counting on that past experience, but knows it offers know guarantees.
"Does that translate into wins and losses? I'm not sure about that," Skinner said. "At least there's a sense of comfort. I've done this before. I have an understanding of what's at stake and how hard I need to play for my team."
Cementing that understanding for the Cats were the three matches they played to close out the regular season. Facing Texas A&M, Missouri and Florida, UK took on three tournament teams, two of which earned top-five overall seeds. The Cats beat A&M, but dropped back-to-back matches to No. 4 Missouri and No. 5 Florida to close the season.
The kind of competition UK went up against in those matches will be an asset as the Cats move on to what's next.
"It's a heightened level of concentration," Skinner said. "You have to be engaged for every single point because against good teams it's going to be back and forth a lot. You're not going to get runs of points. You're not going to score three, four, five points at a time very easily unless teams make mistakes."
The Florida match, in particular, offered plenty of teaching moments.
UK was blitzed in the first set, losing 25-11, revealing the importance of a strong start. To that end, Skinner changed around practice.
"We did a time drill (Tuesday) where all of a sudden they're on the clock and they have to perform within five minutes and execute," Skinner said. "We weren't very good at it to begin with, but then understood and got better as practice went on. So doing some things in practice where they're on the clock and have to perform within a certain amount of time I think was beneficial to us."
If not for that slow start against Florida, UK very likely would have upended the highly ranked Gators. The Cats narrowly lost set two before winning in three and four to force a decisive fifth.
"The way we played in sets two, three and four against a top team in the country, that's the level we need to perform at," Skinner said.
Duquense (20-9) doesn't boast the same lofty ranking as Florida, but Skinner still wants to see that kind of volleyball against the Dukes at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday.
"They're team made up of kids that have come from a lot of good club programs, so they're experienced and they have three attackers very capable of putting the ball away," Skinner said. "We have to be very prepared in each particular rotation and understand which attacker is the one that's getting the most balls."
Whoever is across the net and whatever round the Cats are playing in this NCAA Tournament, Skinner expects to see an aggressive team.
"We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here," Skinner said. "We're here to get the next opportunity to play."
Alexandra Morgan will lead UK into an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with Duquense on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky volleyball team has gotten used to being in this position.
As they gathered on Sunday night to watch the Selection Show together, the Wildcats had advanced to eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments. In two of the previous three years, they earned the right to host the first and second rounds.
That doesn't make accomplishing both feats yet again any less rewarding.
"Our kids played really hard this year and we had a great schedule. We had a lot of good wins throughout the year," Skinner said. "To be in a position to be on your home court the first and second rounds, to host the first and second round, is a great feeling."
UK (21-8) was tabbed the No. 15 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, meaning the Cats will once again play their first- and second-round matches in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum. Alexandra Morgan remembers well playing NCAA matches at home in previous years and the advantage it provides.
"It's so much fun," said Morgan, who was named to the All-Southeastern Conference first team on Monday. "Our fans are always amazing at our games, but I felt like the in the tournament they were louder, there were more people there just because it is the national tournament and our season's ending."
Kentucky will open its postseason run on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET against Duquense (20-9). The Dukes won the Atlantic 10 for the first time this season and enter the tournament having won 13 of their last 14 matches.
"You've just gotta think about the first round, and Duquesne is that team," Skinner said. "They won their league and had a great season."
By the time the Cats take the floor later this week, they will have waited nine days since their last match. UK took days off on Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving and returned to the practice floor for two solid days of work over the weekend.
"We've been working really hard in our past two practices," Morgan said. "We've gotten a lot better and we just need to stay focused on volleyball and getting better as opposed to worrying about other distractions that we could be going through right now."
With the fall semester coming to a close, the Cats will have to balance preparing for finals with volleyball. They aren't particularly worried.
"I don't think that's going to be tough for us," Morgan said. "This is a really strong team, we're a competitive team and we're really good at focusing on volleyball and that's going to get us pretty far, I think."
UK enters the tournament having lost two straight, but that's somewhat misleading considering the level of competition faced in those matches. The defeats came against Missouri and Florida, teams seeded fourth and fifth overall in the NCAA Tournament. Add in a win over Texas A&M, another tournament team, in the third-to-last match and you have an end-of-season stretch that figures to have the Cats ready for what's next.
"You can't ask for a better schedule to end the year to prepare you for the NCAA Tournament and our next match," Skinner said. "I'm very excited about how it ended in terms of who we played."
The final result didn't end up being what UK wanted, but the fight the Cats showed in a five-set defeat against Florida is certainly encouraging. The Gators were dominant in the first set and came back in the second to steal a 2-0 lead, but Kentucky didn't fold. Quite the opposite in fact, as UK won the third and fourth before falling in five.
"It's very good to know that, if we start out poorly, that we can finish a lot stronger," Morgan said. "The Florida game was very disappointing, but seeing how hard we fought in the second and third game and the other games just gives me a lot of hope."
Skinner hopes to take even more than hope away from the loss. First, it's a lesson in the importance of starting fast against top competition. Second, it's a lesson in how good the Cats can be when they're clicking.
"We took from sets two, three, four how Kentucky volleyball plays at its highest level," Skinner said. "If we play like that, we can match up with anybody. But it's a matter of doing that and we have to figure it out this week in practice and get the ball rolling on Friday night and hopefully give us a chance to take the next step forward in the tournament."
The next step forward is the second round -- where UK would face the winner of Michigan State and Ohio. After that, Kentucky is looking at an opportunity stay home again for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Lexington was tabbed as a regional host three seasons ago and the Cats have been thinking about playing in that regional ever since.
"We were really excited about that and that's one of our goals we set out in the beginning of the season," Morgan said. "We want to be playing in that regional and we have all plans to be playing in that."
Skinner is all about preparing one match at a time, but he also doesn't mind if his players glean a little extra motivation from the prospect of playing in the regional.
"Of course we aren't going to look past Duquense and that matchup, but sure there's motivation to get there," Skinner said. "You would think that every team that has the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament is motivated to advance. We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here. We're here to get the next opportunity to play."
All-session tickets for the first and second round go on sale Monday at 9 a.m. ET and can be purchased at the UK Ticket Office, online at UKathletics.com/tickets or by calling the ticket office at (800) 928-2287 or (859) 257-1818. All-session tickets are $12 for reserved seats at Memorial Coliseum. Adult general admission tickets (13+) are $10, while seniors (65+) and UK students can purchase all-session tickets for $6 and youth (ages 3-12) general admission tickets cost $4. Single-session tickets, which are $8 for reserved seats and $7 for adult general admission seats and $5 for seniors/UK students and $4 for youth, go on sale Friday at 9 a.m.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Nov. 24:
Volleyball: Whitney Billings
Senior Whitney Billings recorded her 39th career double-double against Texas A&M. Her 15 kills marked a three-set high for the season. She also added 10 digs and was one of four players to log double-digit digs as UK set a new program-record for digs in a three-set match in the 25-point rally scoring era. She also added a pair of blocks in the victory. Against Missouri, she had team-highs in kills (9) and digs (8). For the weekend, she received 39 serves the second most on the squad and she did not commit a single error. For the week, she averaged 4.00 kills per set and 3.00 digs per frame while posting 4.50 points per set.
Volleyball: Zan Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan had another tremendous weekend defensively for the Cats. In a win over Texas A&M she posted a team-high eight blocks. She has now logged five or more blocks in a match against SEC opponents in 10 matches. She also contributed 10 kills on a team-high .529 hitting percentage and added a pair of digs. Against Missouri, she again led the team in blocks and also contributed seven kills. For the week, she averaged 2.83 kills per set on a .394 hitting clip. She also picked up 0.67 digs per set and had a team-high 1.83 blocks per game.
Men's basketball: Julius Randle
Julius Randle is first freshman and just the fourth Wildcat in program history and the first since Jim Andrews in 1971-72 to open the season with five-straight double-double efforts.
He's the first UK player to have five-straight games with double-figure rebounding since Anthony Davis to conclude the 2012 season.
Has scored 20 or more points in four of five games this season.
Randle's 68 rebounds is the most for any UK freshman in the John Calipari era, besting Terrence Jones' 51. Randle is just two points shy of matching Jones' scoring output through the first five games with 104 points.
Dished out four assists against UT Arlington and that number is a season-high.
The two blocks ranks as a season-high.
Men's basketball: James Young
Scored a career-high 26 points to lead all scorers in a win over UT Arlington
Knocked down a UK season-high five 3-pointers
Has hit at least on 3-pointer in all five games this season and is the only Wildcat to do so
Dished out a career-high three assists
Two steals also marked a career-best
Has scored in double-figures in each of Kentucky's last three games
The tone was set from the first serve. This was going to be a nip-and-tuck match
The scores in the opening set between Kentucky and Texas A&M went from 0-0 to 10-10 to 20-20. Neither the Wildcats nor the Aggies led by more than two all set.
It was exactly what Craig Skinner expected.
"We knew it was going to be a battle," Skinner said.
The Cats knew everything they needed to about A&M. The Aggies started Southeastern Conference play 3-7, but had rebounded and lost just one set it the last two weeks to climb back above .500.
"We knew they were on a five-game streak, so we knew what they could do," senior Whitney Billings said. "We knew they were going to bring it and they did."
Knowing that, it seemed a certainty Friday's match would come down to end-of-set execution, but not quite to this extreme.
All three sets in Kentucky's dramatic sweep of Texas A&M were decided by two points -- the minimum for a volleyball match -- and two went beyond regulation. And when points counted most, the Cats were at their best.
"Our kids were better executing under pressure than we were at the beginning and middle of all three sets," Skinner said. "I'm proud of that."
The third set was the most dramatic example, as UK found itself in a 23-20 hole with A&M just two points away from forcing a fourth set. With a combination of tough serving, well-placed attacks and a sturdy block, the Cats won six of the next seven points to close out the victory.
"I just like the way we kept our composure," Billings said. "We didn't freak out that we were down a couple points and we pulled through."
Billings was central to that effort, tallying three kills in the match-deciding run. The senior, like much of her team, struggled with errors in the first and second set, but came on the final frame to hit .545 and register seven of her match-high 15 kills.
"The thing that Whitney did best: She went for everything," Skinner said. "That was as aggressive as I've ever seen her offensively and she made some errors, but she had some big-time kills when we needed it and made plays at the net. That's all you can ask for."
All season, the Cats have shown a knack for raising their game when it matters most. Set-ending spurts have become the norm and UK now boats a 15-10 record in sets decided by the minimum of two points.
As with pretty much everything else, that starts on the practice floor.
"We have a lot of drills that we're down and the other side is ahead and we have to come back and win and there's usually something on the line for it," Billings said.
Billings named taking down and setting up the nets for practice as one set of possible stakes.
"No one wants to do that," Billings said.
However UK has become so effective at the end of sets, it bodes well as the Cats out the regular season and prepares for the NCAA Tournament.
"It's important," Skinner said. "Every team we play from here on out is very good. And so you expect to be in sets after 20 in close games and you've got to be comfortable being uncomfortable and we definitely were that tonight."
UK will have to be "comfortable being uncomfortable" on Sunday with Missouri coming to town. The fourth-ranked Tigers are the nation's lone unbeaten team at 32-0 and clinched the SEC Championship as UK was playing Texas A&M on Friday.
"Well, we gotta get rest and get refocused," Skinner said. "We'll go through the game plan tomorrow on Missouri. They're obviously a great team. We gotta go for it, we gotta play well and let the chips fall where they may. But I like this team, I like how hard we play and I know we'll give Missouri everything that we can."
Adding fuel to the fire on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET is the fact that UK will bid farewell to the class of Billings, Alexandra Morgan, Jessi Greenberg and Desirre' Wilkerson with Senior Day festivities.
"It's going to be sad," Billings said. "It's not our last match at home (UK faces Florida on Wednesday), but just knowing that it's senior night, it's going to be a little emotional."
Skinner isn't hiding from that fact.
"There will be emotions flying everywhere," Skinner said. "It's a good thing though. You can't really anticipate what'll happen the first part of the first set, but as long as we just keep our composure and stay focused and have tunnel vision through each point, we'll give ourselves a great chance to be successful."
And if it comes down to the final points, don't bet against Kentucky.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Nov. 17:
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
Arin Gilliland, who is a MAC Hermann Award Watch List candidate, scored the game-winning goal in the 53rd minute, collecting her team-leading 12th goal of the season on a breakaway slotted far post. Gilliland also tabbed an assist on Kentucky's third goal from, freshman Zoe Swift, for her fourth multi-point game of the season, which also leads the team and ties for the SEC lead.
Women's soccer: Caitlin Landis
Caitlin Landis scored the game-opening goal in the 50th minute, putting home a rebound off a re-fire from a corner kick. The goal for the senior was her fourth of the season as she put Kentucky up 1-0 early.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan had a tremendous week for the Wildcats as UK went 2-0 with a pair of sweeps on the road at Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Morgan opened the weekend by leading UK to a season-high 19 blocks. The Birmingham, Ala., native had a career-high 11 rejections which marked the most blocks by a Wildcat in a single match in the 25-point rally scoring era. She also contributed seven kills on a .438 hitting clip, as UK as a unit only managed to hit at a .186 clip. Against Ole Miss, she again led the squad with six total blocks to run her total to 17 for the two matches at a rate of a stunning 2.83 per set. She added six kills on .400 hitting. For the weekend, Morgan went errorless with 13 kills at a .419 clip and registered 4.00 points per set, just behind Whitney Billings' 4.08 per set who plays in every rotation.
Men's basketball: Julius Randle
Recorded a double-double in both games this week. He's just the fifth player in program history to begin the season with four-straight double-doubles, and the first since Reggie Hanson achieved the feat to begin the 1989-90 season.
His 27-point, 13-rebound effort against Michigan State gave him a third-straight 20-point, 10-rebound game to become the first Division I freshman to open with three-straight 20-10 games since Kansas State's Michael Beasley in 2007.
His 54 rebounds to begin his career are the most of any player in the John Calipari era.
Had a career-high two blocks against Robert Morris.
Scored 23 points and had nine rebounds as UK erased a 14-point second half deficit to even the game late in the second half vs. No. 2 Michigan State.
Men's basketball: James Young
Had a break-out offensive weekend for the Wildcats with a career-high 19 points against second-ranked Michigan State
Scored in double-figures in both games this week
Has sunk at least one 3-pointer in all four games this season for UK
Had career-highs of points, rebounds and field goals made against Michigan State
Logged career-highs in assists (3) and steals (2) in a win over Robert Morris