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UK volleyball ‘really stepped up and made a statement’ to reach Sweet 16

Photo slideshow: UK volleyball defeats Purdue to reach Sweet 16

Kentucky's volleyball team swept Purdue on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Memorial Coliseum in Lexington to advance to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.
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Kentucky's volleyball team swept Purdue on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Memorial Coliseum in Lexington to advance to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.

There was a lot of talk about weathering storms after Kentucky’s first-round NCAA Tournament victory on Friday night.

“We’re really good at weathering storms and that really helps us,” junior Leah Edmond explained afterward.

That analogy seemed especially fitting the next night, too, as a loud thunderstorm raged outside Memorial Coliseum while the Cats had to weather a few more of their own inside.

But ultimately they found a way to get through the difficulties and advance to the Sweet 16 for a second straight season with a three-set victory over Purdue on Saturday night, 25-20, 25-21, 25-14.

“Our team really stepped up and made a statement today,” Coach Craig Skinner said, noting that it was too soon for two top-12 teams to meet in the tournament.

The win was No. 23 in a row for Kentucky, its longest streak under Skinner, and the longest for the program since 1993.

The Cats (26-4) have swept 11 of their last 12 opponents.

Next, UK will meet Nebraska, which swept Missouri on Saturday night. The regional matches most likely will be played at Minnesota on Friday and Saturday night next week.

Nebraska will be a familiar foe for the Cats, who were knocked out of last year’s tournament by the Cornhuskers, 3-1, in the regional finals in Memorial Coliseum.

True freshman Alli Stumler, who had eight kills in the second-round win, talked on Friday night about how Kentucky’s seniors “bring a sense of calmness” to the Cats.

They did that again, especially 6-foot-5 middle blocker Brooke Morgan, who had five of her 12 kills in the second set, in which Kentucky had to rally back from in a hurry and get past some critical errors late to win out 25-21. Morgan also notched four service aces on the night.

Edmond had a game-high 13 kills in the victory. Stumler did her part with eight kills and 15 digs for the Cats. Steady setter Madison Lilley had a match-high 37 assists on 49 kills. Gabby Curry recorded 18 digs.

In front of 2,794 in Memorial Coliseum, UK opened the first set with an early 4-0 scoring run and grabbed a quick 9-3 advantage over the Boilermakers. Purdue stormed back behind its blocks, scoring four in a row to cut the Cats’ lead to two points, 19-17.

But the Cats prevailed behind good placement and strong net play, winning out 25-20 behind three kills apiece from Edmond and Morgan.

“It took a little bit for us to settle in against that,” Lilley said of Purdue’s stout blocking.

Kentucky was helped early in the first set by three service aces from three different players.

Purdue (24-9) stormed back in the second set and grabbed a 5-2 lead early before the Cats were able to settle in and grab the lead back 9-8 on a Morgan kill.

That started a five-point rally for Kentucky that looked like it would shut down Purdue, but the Boilers roared back, cutting the Kentucky lead to a point, 21-20, after the Cats had three straight errors.

But even when things weren’t going UK’s way in those storms, there wasn’t panic. This is a team that has tried to evolve and not get too high or too low at those moments.

“I never felt like we were down,” Curry said. “That steadiness is where we’re trying to get to.”

The Boilermakers were paced by Blake Mohler’s 10 kills. Sherridan Atkinson added nine kills. Purdue managed just 27 kills in the three-set match and had no other player with more than three.