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Nightmare night could still equal dream season for UK volleyball

Kentucky Wildcats Ashely Dusek and McKenzie Watson can't reach the ball against the Florida Gators at Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday, November 1, 2017 in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky Wildcats Ashely Dusek and McKenzie Watson can't reach the ball against the Florida Gators at Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday, November 1, 2017 in Lexington, Ky. Michael Reaves

Almost anything that could go wrong did Wednesday night as No. 6 Kentucky volleyball suffered a hometown house of horrors the day after Halloween against the No. 4 Florida Gators in Memorial Coliseum.

But while there were few positives to pull from a 3-0 sweep at the hands of the Gators, UK controls its own destiny in the SEC and will still be among the favorites to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament.

“There was absolutely no give up after we got down 2-0,” UK Coach Craig Skinner said of the fight the Cats put up in the third set before succumbing. “We got a lead and had a chance, (but) ... Florida responded. Our team’s tough and they certainly didn’t shy away from the moment.

“We still control what we do. We have to evaluate what happened in the match and how we can improve so when we face teams like that, that have a game plan and purpose that we have an ability to respond to it. Our team is without question going to get better at the gym this week.”

In addition to being ranked No. 6 in the coaches’ poll, Kentucky is No. 3 in the NCAA’s RPI, so it’s unlikely a loss against the RPI No. 5 in Florida, even at home, will hurt its standing in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee. Kentucky has made the NCAAs in each of Skinner’s 12 seasons at the helm, advancing to the Sweet 16 three times.

Kentucky (19-3, 10-1) came in on a 14-match win streak. Before Wednesday’s defeat, it’s only other losses were Sept. 4 to No. 12 Kansas in Lawrence and to No. 14 Creighton three days earlier in Omaha, Neb. However, UK also has road wins against No. 17 Southern California and highly regarded Northern Iowa.

What could hurt UK is that the SEC is down a bit compared to years past with no other SEC teams in the top 25. Kentucky has seven games left in SEC play, including five against opponents it’s already beaten, starting with South Carolina at home on Sunday. If UK wins out, it will share its second SEC title since 2009, the only other time Skinner’s Cats have won it.

But the Gators made it clear to Kentucky and the 5,329 at Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday night that they were not the same team that lost to the Cats last month in Gainesville.

Behind the three-pronged attack of Carli Snyder, Shainah Joseph and Rhamat Alhassan, Florida swept the Cats in front of the biggest home crowd of the Skinner era. Kentucky beat Florida 3-1 on Oct. 15 to hand the Gators (19-1, 11-1) their only loss of the season.

“They affected the game at the net in this match a lot better than they did down there,” Skinner said after Kentucky’s first SEC loss of the season. “They made some physical adjustments. They killed the ball behind the setter way more today than they did down there. … It’s something they’ve obviously been working on.”

Snyder’s 15 kills combined with Joseph’s 12 and Alhassan’s nine to give Florida a dominating attack at the net that seemed to find its way around Kentucky’s blockers all night. UK’s Leah Edmond had 16 kills, but no other UK hitter reached double digits on attack.

Meanwhile, Florida also won big points with blocks at the net. In one third-set rally, Florida blocked UK’s attacks three consecutive times before winning the point to cut UK’s lead to 6-5. The back-to-back-to-back blocks quieted the crowd. UK regained the momentum to go up as much as 13-9, but Florida rallied behind kills from Snyder and Alhassan, two more stifling blocks and two UK errors to take a 20-19 lead.

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The Kentucky Wildcats student section cheers against the Florida Gators at Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday, November 1, 2017 in Lexington, Ky. Michael Reaves Michael Reaves

Skinner said his team was focused and ready heading into the match, but miscues early in the first set put Kentucky on the ropes as four attack errors helped Florida gain an 11-5 edge. Kentucky rallied twice within two points in the first, but a Florida block and a net violation that made it 18-14 proved too big a deficit to overcome.

Kentucky managed leads in sets two and three, but Florida’s intensity and its ability to dig out many of Kentucky’s big swings sapped the Cats’ momentum in each. Florida had 40 digs to UK’s 36, led by Caroline Knop with 14.

“They just executed better,” Edmond said. “They definitely learned from the last time we played them. … We should have made plays and we didn’t, but we’ll learn from it.

Next game

South Carolina at Kentucky

When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday

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