Volleyball Cats stage 'monster comeback' over U of L

UK's Christine Hartmann (32), and Whitney Billings watched as Lauren Rapp (6) spiked against Louisville's Amanda Simmons. Rapp, a senior, finished with 15 kills and three aces.
UK's Christine Hartmann (32), and Whitney Billings watched as Lauren Rapp (6) spiked against Louisville's Amanda Simmons. Rapp, a senior, finished with 15 kills and three aces. Lexington Herald-Leader

As if no air conditioning in Memorial Coliseum wasn't enough Wednesday night, there was a scrappy University of Louisville volleyball team to pour more heat on 16th-ranked Kentucky.

Louisville scored the first seven points of the night and rolled to a 25-14 first-set win.

Kentucky recovered to win the next two games, 25-19 and 25-22, but squandered a 24-22 lead and lost the fourth 25-27.

The decisive fifth set started much like the opener, U of L bolting to a 6-1 lead.

This time, though, UK came roaring back to take the game 15-10, and the match 3-2. The Cats scored eight of the last 10 points.

"I love coaching this team because they compete, they never give up and they're not afraid to make mistakes. And you have to have that type of mentality to beat good teams and win five-game matches," Wildcats Coach Craig Skinner said. "When we had a chance to win game four and didn't get it done, and got down 6-1 in game five, that's a monster comeback mentally. Our seniors had a big part in making that happen."

One of those seniors, outside hitter Blaire Hiler, came up with four of her 10 kills in the final game — including the game-winner.

No, she said, there was never any panic on the UK side of the net. Not in the opening moments. Not when things turned bad in the fifth.

"We've always come back, we've always fought and our team has a lot of heart," Hiler said. "And we're really competitive. Just because we're down doesn't mean that's going to be the end result."

The Wildcats (1-2) were coming off weekend losses to No. 2 ranked Nebraska and No. 9 Iowa State. Their win Wednesday was their first over U of L since 1999.

The Cardinals (2-1) had won 19 of the previous 20 meetings. Now the series is tied at 24 wins each.

Another UK senior, 6-foot-3 Lauren Rapp, finished with 15 kills and three aces.

"Couldn't get much worse," Rapp said of the first-set start. "So we knew we were better than that. We just had to put it together and calm down a little bit, and we did, and played with more energy and heart. ... It was fun."

Whitney Billings, a redshirt freshman and outside hitter, had a double-double of 11 kills and 13 digs. Even though she didn't play in last year's five-set loss at Louisville, that served as motivation for her Wednesday "because I knew we had to beat them, so I just came in with the mentality today wanting to kick butt."

Also for UK, setter Christine Hartmann had 36 assists and 11 digs. Libero Stephanie Klefot added 14 digs and three aces. Alexandra Morgan had eight block assists.

U of L was led by Amanda Simmons with eight kills, two aces, a solo block and 12 block assists. Lol Arslanbekova and Emily Juhl added 12 kills each. Henry Clay graduate Gwen Rucker had nine kills, a solo block and six block assists.

"They just played really well and our block wasn't the way it normally is," Rucker said. "We just have to keep learning how to fight and keep pushing and not get down on ourselves."

With three freshmen in the rotation, U of L Coach Leonid Yelin liked much of what he saw from his team.

"It's going to take time, and I'm hoping not too much time," he said. "But other than that ... I couldn't be more happy (with) the way we played. I'm just not happy with the result."

Next up for the Cats is their Wildcat Classic, Friday and Saturday, when Miami (Ohio), South Florida and Ohio State visit.