Kentucky could have given into the frustrations.
The reigning Southeastern Conference champions might have gotten annoyed that they couldn’t seem to get anything going against upstart Murray State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night.
But the Cats did what they’ve done all season, leaned into the struggles and found a way to win.
“Our team’s just really good at weathering storms,” junior Leah Edmond said. “We’re really good at just staying focused, figuring out how to score this point or how we can work hard to get this point. We’re really good at weathering storms, and that really helps us.”
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It helped Kentucky pick up its 22nd consecutive victory over the scrappy Racers — 25-18, 25-17, 25-19 — in Memorial Coliseum.
UK will next face Purdue, a three-set winner over East Tennessee State in the early match, in Saturday’s second round.
The victory over Murray State didn’t come easy for Kentucky, which has swept 10 of its last 11 opponents.
In the second set, neither team could find an advantage. They traded points like they were playing in the mud, with neither team able to hold onto momentum.
“They have a system that’s very difficult to play against, and how passionate they are about competing,” UK Coach Craig Skinner explained of Murray State, which doesn’t have the size or power of some teams the Cats might play.
So the Racers utilize different serves, “bombs” from way off the court that took Kentucky (25-4) some time to manage. Their sets are much higher than past opponents, which messed with the Cats’ timing and caused an unusual number of issues at the net.
“We don’t see that very often in our league, and of the teams we’ve played against so far this year, it’s the highest sets we’ve seen,” Skinner said. “So the timing is difficult. You’re jumping and falling.”
In the first set, the Racers (22-10) pulled within two points multiple times late before the Cats ultimately pulled away 25-18 behind seven kills from Edmond, the reigning SEC Player of the Year.
After slogging through most of the second set, Kentucky was able to weather the storm and close out with a 10-3 run to win 25-17 behind a set-high six kills from Alli Stumler and eight digs from Gabby Curry.
“You could see it in their eyes,” Skinner said of the Racers, who were led by Rachel Giustino’s 11 points and 12 digs. Becca Fernandez had a match-best 17 digs.
“They’re not scared of the moment. They’re not scared of Kentucky or the venue. … They’ve been to several NCAA tournaments and given teams fits.”
Part of Kentucky’s strength this season has been its ability to “just work, work, work” until the Cats can create separation, Skinner said.
Another part of Kentucky’s strength this season has been its ability to capitalize on its size and power.
Both were on display with three players finishing with double-digit kills in Edmond (17), Stumler (12) and Brooke Morgan (10).
Stumler also had double-digit digs with 15 along with Curry, who had a team-high 16, and Lauren Tharp, who added 11. Madison Lilley led the Cats in assists with 43 on 51 kills.
“They’re awesome,” Murray State Coach David Schwepker said of Kentucky. “Going into it, we said our athletes need to go for it. They need to go for it and don’t back down, and that’s the only chance we had to play against Kentucky and I think we did that.”
▪ Purdue, which is undefeated in first rounds of the NCAA Tournament, continued that streak on Friday night, topping East Tennessee State 25-23, 25-7, 25-18.
The Bucs kept things interesting in the first set before Purdue shook off some early errors to close out with the 25-23 victory. Then the Boilermakers found their rhythm and rolled in the second set.
Errors were costly for East Tennessee State, which had 21 to just nine for the Boilermakers.
Sherridan Atkins led the way with 12 kills, followed by 10 from Grace Cleveland. Hayley Bush added 34 assists for Purdue (24-8).
The Cats and Purdue last met two years ago, with UK edging out the Boilermakers 3-2.