John Clay: Thursday, Friday more of the same for powerful UK women's teams

Hoops, Volleyball take center stage

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 8, 2011 

Coach Craig Skinner's UK volleyball team hosts No. 1 overall seed Texas in an NCAA Sweet 16 match on Friday night.

You could say it's a huge 24 hours-plus for women's sports at the University of Kentucky, except for the fact that's nothing new.

Why, last spring the good folks of the commonwealth were surprised to find out UK not only had a softball team, but a very successful and entertaining one that made it all way to the NCAA super regional, which it hosted.

Then last month, the UK women's soccer team earned its first NCAA Tournament bid in five years and played host to Washington State in its first home tournament game in more than a decade.

Now here it is December, and on Thursday the UK women's basketball team, ranked 10th, meets the sixth-ranked Duke Blue Devils at 6 p.m. in Rupp Arena, the first time since 1983 that two top-10 women's hoops teams have met in Lexington.

Then Friday at 7 p.m., Craig Skinner's UK volleyball team has a Sweet 16 showdown with tournament No. 1 seed Texas in the NCAA Volleyball Regional in Memorial Coliseum.

It may not surprise you to know that all the women's sports happen to be pulling for each other.

"Jon Lipsitz has done such a good job with the soccer program and is a real positive person and that creates energy," Matthew Mitchell, the UK women's basketball coach, said Wednesday. "And Rachel (softball coach Rachel Lawson), both of those coaches are real supportive of us and always wishing us well."

As for Mitchell and Skinner, the offices for the two coaches are both located in the Joe Craft Center/Memorial Coliseum facility.

The volleyball team practices and plays in the coliseum. The basketball team plays in the coliseum, or at least every home game but the one Thursday in Rupp.

Both coaches have rebuilt programs that had fallen on hard times.

After two straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, including an Elite Eight berth in 2010, Mitchell now boasts a top-10 team. Skinner is making his seventh straight NCAA tourney appearance since arriving on campus in 2005.

"Craig and I are good friends and we're in closer proximity with our offices so we have a little bit closer relationship," Mitchell said. "He and I are spending a lot of time together and talk about the different things that go on, so there is a real sense of community here at Kentucky.

"And I credit Mr. (Mitch) Barnhart for that. He cares just as much about what's happening with the soccer team as he does with the softball team," Mitchell said. "It's a lot of fun to be a part of, I can tell you that."

■ Mitchell tossed a wet blanket Wednesday on the idea of playing more women's games in Rupp, and rightly so.

This game is nice. The opponent is Duke. Both teams are ranked in the top 10. It's an opportunity to shoot for a record crowd.

But, as Mitchell and his players said, Memorial Coliseum is the team's home and it has been a good one.

If you were there Sunday for the team's 20-point win over Louisville, it's hard to imagine the Cats having a better home-court advantage than that.

■ That said, U of L coach Jeff Walz had to get in a post-game jab Sunday about how UK had a "nice" crowd of 8,000 while his team averages 12,000 a game at the Yum Center.

■ Friday's volleyball regional is what is known as historically packed.

Not only do you have the No. 1-seeded Longhorns and the host Cats, ranked 13th in the volleyball RPI, but you have defending national champion Penn State, ranked 11th this year, and 15th-ranked UCLA.

In fact, Penn State has won the last four NCAA Volleyball Tournaments. In 2008 and 2009, the Nittany Lions were undefeated champions going 38-0 each season. Last year, Russ Rose's team went 32-5 in winning it all.

The overall No. 8 seed in this year's tournament, Penn State comes to Lexington 25-7.

■ UK reported that as of 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, nearly 1,700 tickets had been sold for Friday's matches at the coliseum, which start with Penn State and UCLA at 5 p.m. UK-Texas follows at 7.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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