COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina volleyball earned its biggest win of the season to date and snapped a 13-game losing streak to Kentucky (16-4, 9-1 SEC) after defeating the defending national champions in five sets Thursday night. The Gamecocks (13-10, 5-8 SEC) fell behind 2-1 in the match, but came back behind the arms of Kyla Manning (17 kills) and Riley Whitesides (18) and handed the fifth-ranked Wildcats their first conference loss of the season.
SET ONE: Both offenses came out the gate strong, but it would be behind the service line that keyed South Carolina to a 26-24 win in the opening game. It was a trend that came back to haunt Kentucky in the final set, but the visitors committed five service errors in the opening game, negating a 17-14 advantage in kills. The Gamecocks held their own offensively against one of the top offenses in the nation, hitting .407 with Manning leading the way with seven kills. There would be 10 ties and four lead changes, most coming late, with Kentucky earning the first set point at 24-23. The Gamecocks were able to side out after a Wildcat attack error, and Manning iced it with a solo block on a setter dump attack and finished the game with a kill.
SET TWO: Kentucky punched back in a big way in set two, doubling up South Carolina in kills (14-7) and holding the home side to a negative hitting percentage with eight errors to go with the seven kills. Despite the wide disparity, the Gamecocks actually were in control for most of the early going, pushing ahead 14-11 before allowing an 11-0 run to Kentucky that led to a 25-17 final margin.
SET THREE: While the offense did pick itself back up in the third, Kentucky was red-hot at the net and converted 17 kills off 29 swings in a 25-13 win. Whitesides found some confidence on the attack that would pay off in the final two sets, but her team-high four kills were not enough to slow the Wildcats down. The visitors led wire-to-wire to push ahead to a 2-1 lead in the match.
SET FOUR: Facing a must-win scenario for the rest of the night, South Carolina enjoyed its best offensive numbers of the night in a 25-20 fourth set win that evened the match at two sets apiece. Manning and Whitesides each had five kills and McKenzie Moorman had her best set of the night with three kills on five swings to power an offense that hit .324 and finished with 16 kills. It was South Carolina's turn to lead wire-to-wire, it would lead by as much as seven points down the stretch and forced a fifth game to decide the match.
SET FIVE: Kentucky's serving errors that were a major factor in the opening set were even more glaring, as the Wildcats committed four errors in the set to 15. That erased the offensive advantage the visitors had, which was a 10-kill set and a .400 hitting percentage. South Carolina won 15-12 thanks to a clean side of the net, committing just one attack error on 17 swings and getting three kills each from Manning and Whitesides. Kentucky used a 3-0 run early to tie the score at 6-6, but kills from Whitesides and Oby Anadi put the home side back in front and the Gamecocks would not look back from there. A Morgan Carter ace made it 13-11, and Whitesides set up match point on a wild play where she attacked a ball popped up by the Gamecock blockers for her 18th kill of the night. A Kentucky blocking error clinched the win at 15-11 for the team's second win over a top-five-ranked opponent in as many seasons.
- Adding to Kentucky's 13-straight wins in the series, the Wildcats were 25-2 against the Gamecocks going back to 2003. During the 13-game streak, Kentucky had lost just five sets total to South Carolina. Of the three wins now dating back to 2003, all three have come at home for the Gamecocks.
- Kentucky finished the match with the advantage in kills (72-56), hitting percentage (.345 to .241) and aces (5-4). In the last three seasons, the team is just 4-24 when giving up more kills to its opponents and was just 1-7 in games where it was out-hit by opponents this season before Thursday.
- The victory is the team's third of the year against an opponent ranked in the top-25 coaches poll. The program record for highest-ranked opponent beaten is No. 4 Florida last November.
- Anadi stepped in as a middle blocker with the absence of Mikayla Robinson, the freshman put down a key kill in the fifth set and also had two blocks and four serve receptions in the match.
- Whitesides' 18 kills are a season high, and the sophomore also finished with a team-best .389 hitting percentage on 36 swings.
- With Anadi and setter Claire Wilson coming into the rotation as substitutes, six players who are either freshmen or sophomores played for the Gamecocks Thursday night.
Kyla Manning on the team's motivation coming into the match We had to really know and be confident through all these struggles that we love each other. Having struggles and tough moments, that's hard and that's enough to break a group up. I love my group so much because we were strong through it all. We couldn't have come out here and played the game that we did if we didn't love each other and if we weren't bought into Gamecock Volleyball, so I'm just incredibly proud of how we bounced back from Ole Miss and came with a vision. We know the road is hard, we know the road is long, but this group loves each other and that'll carry us through it. So that was just today, that was just step one.
Tom Mendoza on the team rallying in its first game back without senior Mikayla Robinson
Our group of wanted to send a message to Robbie that we have that we have her back and how much she means to the program and continues to mean to the program, injury doesn't stop that. When you lose a player of that caliber to injury, I think it does make everyone else say 'okay, we have to we can't just rely on Robbie, we've all got to pick up a little bit more slack' and I thought that was the right mentality and the team did a great job of that today.
October was rough, we did not play our best volleyball in the month of October. I think it'd be really easy for our players to start looking at winter break and just say let's get through these last six matches. For them to stay committed to each other and stay committed to the program, I'm very proud of them for that and I'm happy that they got rewarded with the win.
The Gamecocks and Wildcats meet again, with another 7 p.m. Friday night. The game will air on the SEC Network+.