Kentucky volleyball began the season with a No. 10 preseason ranking, high expectations and a buzz-saw preconference schedule that saw it lose four-straight games in the last month and nearly drop out of the AVCA coaches' poll for the first time in 36 weeks.
But the return of junior Anni Thomasson to the starting lineup and a 3-1 win (25-27, 25-18, 25-20, 25-23) Sunday at Memorial Coliseum over highly regarded rival Louisville gave the No. 24 Cats a three-game win streak and some confidence heading into SEC play.
"It's certainly been a challenge," UK Coach Craig Skinner said Sunday after the win. "We start out 3-0 and then to have some injuries ... It certainly challenged our staff to understand how we have to go about coaching this team, because you can lose your composure and expect more from freshmen than maybe what they're ready for. ... I'm glad because I think the adversity can help us as we go through the season."
Senior setter Morgan Bergren finished off the win for the Cats with a timely flip away from the Cardinals defense that killed the point and the match.
"You just kind of have to read it and know if they're (the defense) blocking," Bergren said. "They were going with Kaz (Brown) a lot, behind, so I know the middle was kind of going away from me and it was open."
Bergren's kill capped a fourth set that Louisville looked to have in control late, leading 22-20, three points away from leveling the match at two sets each. But an attacking error by Cardinal freshman hitter Aniah Philo and back-to-back kills by Kentucky sophomores Darian Mack and Emily Franklin put the Cats back up 23-22 and set up Bergren's eventual game-winner.
The return of outside hitter Thomasson, who missed two weeks with an abdominal strain, provided a boost of leadership and a double-double (13 kills and 13 digs).
"That's a good game to come back on, I think," she said. "It was an intense game to come back on, but as soon as the whistle blew, I was into it."
And Kentucky sophomore Kaz Brown helped spearhead a defensive effort that saw the Cats turn in 17 blocks against the Cardinals.
"Really the difference in the match was our blocking," Skinner said. "Our blocking was as good as it's been in a couple of years."
Brown figured in 13 of those blocks, the most by a Wildcat in the 25-point rally scoring era, bettering the old mark by two. She was also the first middle blocker for UK in that time to record a double-double by also tallying 10 kills in the match.
Louisville (6-4) took the opening set of the match that was knotted 22-22 when a referee's overrule on an endline kill by Cardinals junior Maya McClendon took what looked to be a crucial point for the Cats. Louisville eventually prevailed in the first set 27-25.
"I was pretty proud of our group," Skinner said of his team's reaction, "because a couple of breaks didn't go our way at the end of set one, and they pulled it out and played well."
Louisville's chances in the subsequent games were undone by 14 service errors and 30 hitting errors.
"When you have a match where you have 14 service errors, you expect at least six or seven aces," Cardinals Coach Anne Kordes said. "But they were just bad errors. ... We were just really tight tonight and we've got to find some answers to the errors we've got."
Kentucky (7-5) begins its Southeastern Conference schedule at 7 p.m. Friday at South Carolina before hitting the road again to take on No. 5 Florida at 1 p.m. Sunday. Those are two of nine UK conference matchups to be aired live on the SEC Network.