Sports

John Clay: Despite loss, UK volleyball takes a step forward

Texas' Haley Eckerman, 10, scored over KEntucky's Christine Harmann, and Becky Pavan, 22, as Kentucky played #1 Texas  in the NCAA Volleyball Championships at the University of Kentucky  on Friday December 9, 2011  in Lexington, Ky.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Texas' Haley Eckerman, 10, scored over KEntucky's Christine Harmann, and Becky Pavan, 22, as Kentucky played #1 Texas in the NCAA Volleyball Championships at the University of Kentucky on Friday December 9, 2011 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

With the score tied in a crucial stretch, the loud and plentiful crowd at Memorial Coliseum rose to its collective feet in a near-unified chant of "Go Big Blue, Go Big Blue."

Only this wasn't the Kentucky women's basketball team this particular slice of the Big Blue Nation was putting all its vocal cords behind.

This was the UK women's volleyball team.

OK, OK, so in the end the scoreboard read that top seed Texas defeated Craig Skinner's Wildcats 3-1 Friday in a Sweet 16 matchup of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament. And the bracket shows that it is the Longhorns who advanced to Saturday's regional final match against UCLA, which took out defending champion Penn State in Friday night's first match.

But truth be told, it was Kentucky volleyball that took a step forward.

"It was just an unbelievable atmosphere," said Skinner afterward of an announced crowd of 4,022.

This was an unbelievable volleyball regional, as well, what with three of the four schools having NCAA volleyball championships on their résumés. Penn State, winners of four straight titles under legendary coach Russ Rose, brought a young team that fell to an aggressive UCLA outfit in three sets in the first match.

Texas entered the second match as the nation's No. 1 team, the tournament's top seed and on a 16-game win streak.

The Longhorns had lost all of two sets in their last six matches. They had been pushed to five sets just once since Oct. 3.

And yet, Kentucky, a team that didn't even win its own division in the SEC, pushed the tournament favorites every serve, every kill and every dig of the way.

"This match could have gone either way," Texas Coach Jerritt Elliott said.

Why it went Texas' way may have been decided in that third set. Texas held a 24-21 lead, needing just one more point to take a commanding 2-1 lead. But four times Kentucky held off set points, finally tying the set at 24-24, then again at 25-25 before ultimately losing it at 27-25.

If that took anything out of Skinner's group, it didn't really show. In the climactic fourth set, neither team led by more than two points. Finally, at 25-23, Texas got the two-point lead that mattered.

"I knew there's no way this team is going to give up, absolutely no way," Skinner said. "As an athlete you need to be in the moment, and no team did it better than this group."

But then maybe this particular Friday night was volleyball's moment around here.

"They were really pumped up for the game and we knew their audience would be as well," Texas' Bailey Webster said.

"It was a fun game to play in," said Longhorns teammate Haley Eckerman. "I thought we did a really good job of sticking together in a crazy environment."

It was a fun match to watch, with incredible digs of rocket shots, amazing serves and overpowering kills.

"People saw a match that was about as high level of volleyball as you can play," Skinner said.

"A heavyweight fight," Elliott called it.

And the crowd responded with the sort of passion it normally reserves for hoops in this building.

"It was definitely the biggest crowd we've played in front of," said UK junior Christine Hartmann. "We lost the fourth game and they were still cheering for us because we had a great season. You can tell there are die-hard fans of UK volleyball."

"I can't thank this crowd enough for what they did for volleyball and our team and our program," Skinner said. "Sports is all about recruiting and and hopefully we recruited some new fans."

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