Forget basketball. Kentucky turned into a volleyball school over the weekend as the Wildcats attempted to make the Final Four for the first time in program history.
A crowd of 4,464 — the fifth-largest in UK volleyball history in Memorial Coliseum — watched the Wildcats battle the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the NCAA Tournament round of 8 on Saturday. Unlike the previous two matches when the Cats fell into a two-set hole, Kentucky wasn’t able to complete a comeback and lost 3-1.
The large turnout of UK fans helped ease the pain of the loss, senior defensive specialist Ashley Dusek said.
“We kind of did it all together. It’s tough losing a match, obviously, but just being with the people around me and the coaching staff, that just made me put it in perspective, like (how far) we’ve come,” Dusek said.
The Cats’ disappointment in a season-ending defeat was tempered by the knowledge they did something special.
“As a competitor, you want to be mad because you just lost a competition, but I can’t find any reason to be mad,” Coach Craig Skinner said. “Just really proud to have been able, with myself and my staff, to be able to coach this team. They did everything right.”
Kentucky earned its first top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament this season. The Cats completed two dramatic comebacks that caught the attention of fans all over the state.
They needed to complete a third comeback on Saturday after dropping the first two sets against Nebraska. Kentucky took the third set 27-25 but lost the fourth.
UK’s seniors won 100 matches during their careers. Dusek, Kaz Brown and Emily Franklin might be gone, but their legacy won’t go away soon, their coach said.
“This team is special, and our state and our volleyball community, our university, will remember this group for a long time,” he said. “These seniors have left a foundation for us to springboard off.”
Skinner praised the seniors’ leadership skills for advancing the program one win short of the Final Four.
“I’ve said at the beginning that bad teams have no leadership, good teams are led by their coaches and great teams are led by the players,” he said. “And the players led this year.”
Dusek said the Cats’ strong mindset fueled their comebacks. She hopes future Kentucky teams match their mental toughness.
“We hope that they would keep the tradition going,” she said. “They understand the mindset. I think we’ve kept that this whole year.”