Less than a week after the Kentucky volleyball team erased an 0-2 set deficit against Western Kentucky, the Wildcats had to force another fifth set Friday in their Sweet 16 match against BYU in the NCAA Tournament in front of 3,219 fans in Memorial Coliseum.
The Wildcats, who dropped two of the first three sets against BYU, rallied again and went on to win the deciding set 15-9 to reach the NCAA’s Elite Eight for the first time in Craig Skinner’s tenure as head coach. UK had played in five five-set matches before Friday’s contest, and that experience definitely benefited them against the Cougars.
However, Skinner said that a drill the Wildcats have been practicing all year helped prepare them for the fifth set more than any previous match.
“I’m not going to get into specifics about it, but it was a lot harder to win that drill than it is to win that fifth set out there because everything’s against the starting group and they can’t get out of practice until they win,” Skinner said.
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That drill must be a difficult one as the Cats not only won the fifth set, they prevailed after falling behind 5-1. Then Kentucky, which also reached the Elite Eight in 1983 and 1987, turned it around by scoring seven of the next nine points, and they never looked back.
“It’s something we’ve worked on since August and something that we preached, but also it’s just the balance of our team,” Skinner said. “They want to be effective offensively in that match, and in the fifth set it really showed up.”
Former Paul Laurence Dunbar star Leah Edmond got five of her 21 kills after BYU took that 5-1 lead. She had struggled a bit to connect on her shots in the fourth set, but she stepped it up when the Cats needed it most.
“No play affects the next play with (Edmond); she’s mentally tough and just wants the ball in crunch time and it showed in that situation,” Skinner said.
As the Cats started to pull away from BYU in the fifth set, the noise from the crowd kept getting louder. Kentucky fans had been on the edge of their seats ever since the Cats fell behind 2-1, and all that nervous energy turned into loud cheers as the Cats rallied.
“I think we’re just confident … we’re just really good in the fifth set,” Edmond said. “We just love a good fifth set.”
After the match, Skinner and his players complimented the fans’ efforts in helping them prevail.
“That takes a lot of energy, effort and commitment from our fans,” Skinner said, especially considering the noon starting time and shortage of parking available. “Just really proud to be representing Kentucky when the people come like that.”
Fortunately for fans, Kentucky’s Elite Eight match will start at 4 p.m. Saturday, and the parking situation is expected to go back to normal, as it was during the regular season.
Before that, the Cats will take some time to celebrate another come-from-behind victory.
“That was the most fun I’ve had in my five years, in any game,” senior Emily Franklin said.
No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Nebraska
4 p.m. in NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in Memorial Coliseum (ESPNU)