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UK volleyball set to face defending NCAA champ. ‘We can face anything that comes our way.’

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.

For the second year in a row, the University of Kentucky volleyball team will square off with Nebraska in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats face the defending national champion Cornhuskers in the Sweet 16 on Friday in Minneapolis on the campus of host Minnesota.

UK’s tournament run ended last year when the Cornhuskers toppled the higher-seeded Wildcats in the Elite Eight in Memorial Coliseum, ending UK’s hopes of reaching the program’s first Final Four. This time around, it will be No. 10 Kentucky looking to spring the upset over No. 7 Nebraska.

Last year, the Cats faced the Cornhuskers the day after a tough five-set win over BYU in the Sweet 16. But UK will have had a whole week to prepare for Friday’s bout, and sophomore setter Madison Lilley thinks that could give the Cats an edge.

“It was difficult coming off of a five-set, obviously a win was really cool against BYU last year, but it was a quick turnaround,” Lilley said. “Obviously, we were tired physically and mentally so I think that played a big role. Having this whole week to prepare is definitely going to make a difference.

“I know that the fire is there. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to come out and play as hard as we can with a lot of fire and compete really hard.”

Both teams enter Friday’s matchup having swept their first- and second-round opponents. Kentucky is riding a particularly stunning hot streak, winning 23 straight games and going undefeated in league play to claim the Southeastern Conference Championship. With a win on Friday, the Wildcats would match the longest win streak in program history.

Nebraska finished tied for third in the Big Ten and raked in several all-conference honors. Three Cornhuskers were named to the All-Big Ten First Team, including seniors Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney. Foecke leads Nebraska’s offense with an average of 3.74 kills per set while Maloney paces the defense with 4.07 digs per set. Nicklin Hames and Callie Schwarzenbach were named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team.

Kentucky racked up the postseason honors as well. Junior star Leah Edmond was named SEC Player of the Year and was joined on the SEC First Team by Lilley, Gabby Curry, and Brooke Morgan. Alli Stumler became UK’s third consecutive SEC Freshman of the Year and head coach Craig Skinner earned his second straight SEC Coach of the Year nod.

Skinner, who spent five years as an assistant and won the 2000 national title with Nebraska before coming to Kentucky, downplayed the idea of a “revenge factor” playing a role in the Wildcats’ motivation heading into Friday.

“It’s completely different teams. We have four new people on the floor and a bunch of new freshman,” Skinner said. “Our team kind of seems to stay in the present and looks forward to the next opportunity to compete. I don’t think they spend a lot of energy on past deals or personal vendettas or revenge or anything like that ... they just want to get on the court and play on Friday.”

For her part, Lilley is just excited that the Cats seem to be firing on all cylinders heading into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

“Mentally, I think we’re in a really good spot right now and and I think that we can face anything that comes our way,” she said. “So whatever they bring to the table, I feel confident that we’re going to be able to match it.”

Next game

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16: No. 10 Kentucky vs. No. 7 Nebraska

Where: Minneapolis, Minn.

When: Friday, 2 p.m.