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Can ‘steady’ Kentucky volleyball continue to ride win streak to new heights?

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.

Volleyball is a celebratory sport.

There’s a huddle with cheering and slaps on the back after nearly every point scored.

Even overturned calls on replay often earn a dance and celebration dive from the reserves during the course of a match.

And while Kentucky cheered each point of its three-set sweep of Purdue in Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night, the Cats seemed a little reserved after the final point on the scoreboard went up on the 25-20, 25-21, 25-14 victory.

They are headed back to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 a different team, one riding a 23-game win streak.

“We’re kind of working on being steady on anything that happens,” said sophomore libero Gabby Curry, who had a match-high 18 digs. “We talk about weathering the storm and I was saying after the game, I never felt like we were down.”

After winning the first set 25-20, the Cats did get down early in the second set, falling behind and then having to recover from three straight errors to bounce back and win it, 25-21, behind senior Brooke Morgan, who had five of her 12 kills in that second set.

The 6-foot-5 middle blocker also notched a career-best four service aces on the night.

But even as things weren’t going Kentucky’s way during those hiccups, deep breaths and calmer heads prevailed.

It’s a new team that has worked hard not to get too high or too low.

“Maybe we don’t cheer as much for the great points and things like that, but it just shows that when we’re down we don’t show anything either so steadiness is where we’re trying to get and progress to that,” Curry said.

While UK is heading back to the regionals a different team, they’ll be facing a familiar foe in Nebraska, a three-set winner over Missouri late Saturday night.

The Cornhuskers knocked Kentucky from last year’s region finals, 3-1 in Memorial Coliseum. The rematch will be Friday at Minnesota, which fellow Big Ten players said will be a difficult venue.

“I’m not going to lie; Minnesota is a really tough place to play at,” said Purdue junior Blake Mohler, who paced the Boilermakers with 10 kills. “We kind of struggle there every year. It’s a scary gym. Not being in the Big Ten seeing that every night (is different).”

Setter Madison Lilley, who had 37 assists on 49 Kentucky kills, is excited to see how the Cats weather this next storm. Having a full week to prepare for the Cornhuskers instead of just bouncing back from a five-set win the night before like last season should help.

“I know that we’re really fired up and we’re excited to go to Minnesota and play there,” Lilley said after Kentucky swept its 11th opponent in 12 tries on Saturday night.

“That’s going to be a really fun atmosphere and it’s going to be a really good match up. We’re excited about it.”

Cats Coach Craig Skinner is excited to see what’s next from this group, which is advancing to its second straight Sweet 16 with what he called a “statement” win that included holding the Boilermakers to just 27 kills.

UK freshman Alli Stumler narrowly missed on a second straight double-double with eight kills and a career-high tying 15 digs.

Leah Edmond, the reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, had a match-high 13 kills with four digs and a block. The junior has had double-digit kills in all but two matches this season.

“We’re trying to solidify ourselves as an elite program in the country,” Skinner said on Saturday night. “Going into today, our team never seems to get phased by what’s next. So I think that’s an important step for the evolution of an elite program.”

Next match

No. 10 Kentucky vs. No. 7 Nebraska

What: NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16

When: 2 p.m. Friday

Where: Minneapolis