Kentucky closes out WKU 3-2
On the eve of the NCAA Tournament, Craig Skinner looked back on the regular season.
Kentucky's first Southeastern Conference championship in 29 years was fresh on his mind, but so were some heavier moments.
He wasn't about to block them out. Skinner knew they would serve his Wildcats well.
"You want to be in tough situations, you want to me down and learn how to fight back, you want to be in front of big crowds, to know what that feels like," Skinner said on Thursday.
Skinner might have wanted to avoid being down on Saturday night, but there the Cats were. WKU had taken the first two sets of a second-round match in Memorial Coliseum, leaving UK a set away from elimination and without any momentum whatsoever.
Having built all that regular-season experience, the Cats didn't blink. UK outscored WKU 10-3 to close the third set and didn't look back from there in rallying for a five-set victory and a place in the Sweet 16.
"Obviously these are special wins, when you can come back like that," Skinner said. "That's probably the toughest I've seen a Kentucky volleyball team play since I've been here, for the last hour-and-a-half to will ourselves back in and fight for the win."
The match was an instant classic, with the two in-state foes trading powerful swings and improbable digs. Two likely All-Americans - WKU's Alyssa Cavanaugh and UK's Leah Edmond - were outstanding with 23 and 22 kills, respectively. Combining all five sets, No. 4 overall seed UK (28-3) outscored WKU (31-4) by the slimmest of margins: one point.
"If you haven't been a volleyball fan and you were here tonight, there's no way you're not going to be from here on out," Skinner said. "That's as exciting a sporting event as you're going to see."
What allowed the Cats to survive was a strict adherence to a mantra Skinner has hammered home all season: Be where your feet are.
"That was massive for this match, just because it's really easy to get ahead of yourselves in those ones, especially going down 0-2," Kaz Brown said. "You have to take it one point at a time. There's nothing you can do. No matter how spectacular the play is, it can only get you one point."
On Saturday evening - with a raucous crowd living and dying with every point looking on - Brown's feet happened to be a few feet of the ground quite often. The senior showed no intention of allowing her career to end on this night. Brown posted 14 kills with a scorching hitting percentage of .722. She was also a block shy of a double-double.
"A lot of it is this team," Brown said. "This team is really special. I love this team and I'm going to do everything in my power to keep playing with them."
Brown admitted her mind drifted briefly to thoughts of losing during a heart-stopping fifth set that saw UK build leads of 4-0 and 11-8 before WKU rallied to tie it 12-12, but that didn't last long.
"For a split second, maybe, but this team, I like to think that we're the best game five team in the country," Brown said. "Going into it, I have nothing but confidence it my teammates."
The confidence is well placed, because UK now owns a perfect 4-0 record in fifth sets this season. The Cats have overcome 0-2 deficits in two of those matches and 1-2 deficits in the others.
"Once you've done it, you feel like you can do it again," Skinner said. "If you break it into a big picture, you're probably going to lose. If you think about the first point of the third set after being down 2-0, you have a chance."
Armed with yet more experience, UK marches on. The Cats' strong regular season earned them the right to play in Memorial again next weekend, where they will take on 13th-seeded BYU. The Cougars swept Oregon on Saturday night and have reached the Sweet 16 three years in a row after making the national championship game in 2014.
"It's going to be dynamic athletes competing and probably be very similar to this type of match, where it's back and forth," Skinner said. We're just going to have to execute."