Volleyball: Michigan St. stops UK's tournament run

mmaloney@herald-leader.comDecember 8, 2013 

The NCAA Volleyball Sweet Sixteen will be coming to Kentucky next weekend.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they won't be dancing on the Memorial Coliseum floor.

Michigan State ended UK's run 3-1 (25-22, 21-25, 25-22, 25-20) Sunday before 890 fans in the Coliseum.

The Spartans will return Friday to face Penn State, while Stanford and Minnesota will fill the other half of the regional bracket.

"The hardest part for me is when you have a group of seniors that deserves to keep playing, and the effort's put in and how hard these guys work," UK Coach Craig Skinner said. "It's tough to swallow when you don't come out on the winning end of the match like this.

"You have to give Michigan State credit because they killed the ball at an extremely high rate in sets three and four, and that's the difference. (UK's) effort was there the entire match. They competed hard. You can't ask for more than that. You just hope that you execute better so you can score the points."

The 17th ranked Wildcats (22-9), in the NCAA for a school-record ninth straight year, were denied a third straight Sweet Sixteen berth.

No. 20 Michigan State (23-11) will make its second straight regional appearance.

"We started off strong in game one, and Kentucky just roared back and played some outstanding volleyball and did a lot of great things," MSU Coach Cathy George said. "I was glad to see the way our team responded after being down and Kentucky just making runs at us. .... We panicked for a while. I thought we were up a little too much and then we started settling down. Once we did that, I think the team started to play more organized and we started to take care of the ball on our side and do what we needed to do. A lot of key players stepped up in big-time situations."

Lauren Wicinski led a balanced attack with 16 kills and 17 digs. Allyssah Fitterer added a career-high 15 kills and three blocks.

Kentucky relied on Whitney Billings, who finished with 18 kills on 54 chances. Only one Cat had half as many attempts — Lauren O'Conner, who totaled seven kills.

Michigan State led most of the way in a nip-tuck opener.

"We knew it was important to come out and be aggressive, especially that first set," Wicinski said. "We knew we had to take over that."

With Billings on serve, UK ran off seven points in a row to take a 19-15 second-set lead, a lead it never lost.

"I think we got them out-of-system with the short serve," Billings said, "so we kept going with it."

After intermission, UK built a 14-8 lead on Kayla Tronick's kill.

Michigan State tied it at 16 with a 7-2 flurry that included a controversial point that UK thought it had saved with a sensational dig.

"I didn't want it to be the last game for the seniors," said junior Jackie Napper, who led UK with 21 digs.

UK still led 19-18 before MSU scored four in a row to take the lead for good.

Skinner, who offered a "no comment" regarding controversial calls, said the Spartans "started passing better, getting the ball in-system."

"They run a pass offense and when you have to try and block two or three at a time when they run it that fast and hit it that hard, that was the difference."

Michigan State opened the fourth set with an 8-2 blitz.

Kentucky never came closer than two from there, the last at 19-17 on a Billings kill.

Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @MarkMaloneyHL. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com.

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