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Cats put doubts aside at start of 'new season'

Kentucky had every reason to doubt itself.

The Cats, ranked in the nation's top 25 the entire year, lost two straight games to end their regular season.

They had lost only two games total leading up to that.

UK let a chance at a share of the Southeastern Conference title slip away — not once, but twice — with those losses.

But the Cats never let those doubts overwhelm them as they kicked off the NCAA Tournament with a three-set win over Michigan State 25-23, 25-23, 25-20 at Memorial Coliseum Friday.

"It's a new season," senior setter Sarah Rumely explained. "The SEC is over. We just wanted to refocus and that's what our team did."

It's Kentucky's first trip to the second round since 2006 and just the Cats' second NCAA Tournament victory since 1992.

"I'm excited with how we finished off sets tonight," UK Coach Craig Skinner said. "It's a sign of a veteran team ... and it was very important for us to get this tournament started like that."

With the end of the regular season firmly behind it, Kentucky is ready to look forward to the next round versus No. 17 Oregon, a three-set winner over Clemson earlier Friday.

The winner Saturday night at Memorial Coliseum will advance to the Minneapolis Regional next week.

"It's a battle of wills when you get to this point ... it's going to be an exciting match," Skinner said of the matchup with the Ducks. "Anything can happen in the NCAA Tournament and this is the team I'd like to be there with."

All season, Kentucky has been known as an offensive power. But on Friday night, it showed it had some defensive muscle, too. It got double blockers at the net and big digs at pivotal points.

Skinner was glad to see it.

"We've gotten so many kills that a lot of times this year, our defense didn't need to step up," he said "But at tournament time it does, and tonight it did."

Three different players notched double-digit digs for Kentucky, which had 47 in all. Stephanie Klefot led the way with 13.

Sarah Mendoza and BriAnne Sauer had 11 digs apiece, with Mendoza adding 13 kills as well.

UK's defense held the Spartans' attack to 16.1 percent.

"We didn't handle some of the littler moments," Michigan State Coach Cathy George said of ball control and execution. "I thought Kentucky handled those moments a little bit better."

Kentucky eked out a 25-23 win in the first set behind the balanced attack of Lauren Rapp (six kills), Gretchen Giesler (five kills) and Mendoza (five).

That gave UK some momentum moving forward.

"It was a good start," Skinner said. "It built our confidence that we can play well when we need to and finish sets like we did tonight."

For the match, Rapp led the way with 14 kills. Geisler added eight. Rumely assisted on 39 of UK's kills.

No. 17 Oregon rolls

The Ducks needed just three sets to drop Clemson and advance to the second round 25-17, 25-21, 25-20 in the early game.

Oregon had a balanced offensive attack with five different players recording eight or more kills, led by Sonja Newcombe's 13 kills and six digs.

Heather Meyers and Katherine Fischer had 11 kills apiece for the Ducks, making their fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Meyers also had a game-high 16 digs and four service aces. Nevena Djordjevic added 46 assists.

Coach Jim Moore said his team had to adjust after the Tigers (23-10) set a slow early pace, and he was glad to see them find a way to win regardless of the style of play.

Sandra Adeleye had 13 kills for Clemson, which hit just 25.5 percent to Oregon's 40.5 percent.

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