UK volleyball faces familiar challenge in No. 1 Penn State

mmaloney@herald-leader.comDecember 6, 2012 

  • Friday

    NCAA volleyball regional at West Lafayette, Ind.

    5 p.m. — Kentucky (22-10) vs. Penn State (31-2)

    7 p.m. — Purdue (23-10) vs. Minnesota (26-7)

There's a familiar ring to Kentucky's volleyball season.

The Cats hope that ice cream will be involved this time.

The familiar includes:

■ UK being in the NCAA Sweet 16 for a second year in a row (third in four years);

■ A second straight Sweet 16 match against the No. 1 team in the nation.

UK, which fell 3-1 to Texas in last year's Sweet 16, this time will face Penn State, Friday at West Lafayette, Ind.

As for ice cream, UK Coach Craig Skinner says a question from his 9-year-old daughter went something like this:

"Dad, if you guys win the championship, are you going to buy the team ice cream?"

Skinner smiled as he told the story during a Wednesday news conference in Memorial Coliseum.

His reply: "'Sophie, let's take Friday night first and then we'll talk about that.' But, yes — a year's supply."

Friday's other regional semifinal will pit the host team, Purdue, against No. 10 Minnesota.

Friday's winners will meet Saturday, bidding to reach the following week's Final Four at Louisville.

UK (22-10), seeded 16th, reached this point by rallying from a 1-0 deficit to beat Big Ten entrant Ohio State 3-1.

All the other teams that will be at Purdue this weekend also are from the Big Ten.

"I don't think anyone matches up real well with Penn State, to be honest with you," Coach Geoff Carlston said after his Ohio State team lost to UK. "Kentucky's pretty physical, but Penn State's a different animal right now.

"We played them a week ago; everyone wants to talk about their offense, but they're a phenomenal defensive team. ... Kentucky, if they get in a groove and they serve like they did against us, that gives them a chance, I think. It's going to be a good matchup. Two real physical teams."

Penn State (31-2) won four NCAA titles in a row before falling to eventual national champion UCLA in last year's regional semifinals at UK.

If UK is intimidated by facing No. 1, it doesn't show.

"The big thing about this situation that we're going into is that it's one that we've already been in before — playing Texas as a first seed last year," said Christine Hartmann, a senior who leads UK in assists (10.9 per set). "So we've been here before, we know how to handle it and we're just excited this time around as we were last time. I know the team is as well. I think we're ready to step up to the occasion again and, this time, already having this experience it will be even better."

This marks the Nittany Lions' 10th consecutive appearance in a regional semifinals.

"They're a team with a lot of expectations and a lot of tradition," said Skinner, who has earned NCAA berths with all eight of his UK teams. "I would think that's motivating for our group because we're establishing our own tradition and where we want to be as a program."

Ariel Scott (3.64 kills per set) and Deja McClendon (3.25) lead Penn State attackers. Katie Slay averages 1.35 blocks, while Dominique Gonzalez adds 3.54 digs.

"They hit high balls really well. Even if you get them out of system with your serve, they'll get up and take rips at the ball and hit it hard," Skinner said. "So they're able to get good swings even in bad situations. They play good defense. And they're consistent. They're consistently ready to go each and every match."

Whitney Billings (3.0), Ashley Frazier (2.92) and Lauren O'Connor (2.69) lead UK in kills. Alexandra Morgan (1.08) is tops in blocks and Stephanie Klefot, three-time Libero of the Year in the Southeastern Conference, is queen of digs (3.92).

Klefot, a senior out of Assumption, recalls UK giving its all against Texas last year.

"We're ready to play our hearts out again," she said. "We're just kind of trying to keep ourselves calm right now. I think we're ready for Friday so much and we're just trying to ... stay focused on what we need to do, and not thinking too much about what they do, and more about us."

Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @markmaloneyhl. Blog:

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