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UK volleyball sweeps into sweet 16

Good teams never stop getting better.

That phrase has been written in the Kentucky volleyball locker room since the beginning of the season.

It was there as the Cats won 28 games, and it helped see them through four losses, including two in a row to close out the season.

With a three-set win over Oregon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday night at Memorial Coliseum, UK showed it believed those words on the board.

The Cats, an offensive star all season, showed they could play some defense, too, getting a season-high 17 team blocks in the 25-20, 25-22, 25-17 win over the Ducks, who were the tournament's No. 14 seed.

"We were very assertive and aggressive," Cats Coach Craig Skinner said. "We were very structured and disciplined in what we did. ... It was a great win. These guys deserve to go to a regional."

With the win, UK advances to the Sweet Sixteen in Minneapolis next week where it will take on the winner of Sunday's match between Florida State (29-2) and Jacksonville State (27-7).

The trip to the final 16 ties the farthest Kentucky has advanced in the tournament in program history. It's the Cats' first trip since 1992 and the first under Skinner.

Saturday night, UK had a balanced offensive attack, getting four or more kills from six different players, including 14 from Sarah Mendoza, who also had 11 digs for her fourth straight double-double.

Lauren Rapp registered six kills, eight digs and a career-high 10 blocks.

UK had seven team blocks in the second game in front of the 1,182 at Memorial Coliseum.

Those stuffs offered a big lift, Rapp said.

"It's the biggest momentum booster, getting a block for your team," said Rapp, who also recorded eight digs. "It's so much fun."

So what took the Kentucky defense so long?

"It's one of those things that was late to bloom, but we saved it for the right time," she said.

The blocks were definitely disruptive for a stout Oregon attack that came into the post-season averaging 14.6 kills per game.

Equally disruptive were the Ducks' own mistakes.

"We gave them 21 points on our errors, and that had nothing to do with the 17 blocks they had as well," Oregon Coach Jim Moore said. "You can't give a team 21 points. You can get blocked 17 times and win, but you can't do both or bad things are going to happen and bad things happened."

The Ducks were paced by Heather Meyers' game-high 16 kills and Sonja Newcombe's 14 kills, but as a team they only had a .143 hitting percentage (including hitting just .089 in the final game) to UK's .280 percent for the match.

"We played free, and we were super focused, and everyone took care of their job on the court," said senior setter Sarah Rumely, who had five kills to go with her 34 assists and eight digs. "When you're having fun out there, it makes it that much easier."

So was it tough for Skinner to get his team psychedto play for a trip to ice cold Minneapolis in December?

"The Mall of America is big enough motivation," he joked.

Then he paused and added in a more serious tone that he's proud his team was able to bounce back from those huge losses at the end of the season, losses that cost Kentucky its share of the Southeastern Conference championship this season.

"You have to give these guys a lot of credit for responding the way they did," Skinner continued. "It's tough to lose the last two matches, but they came together and realized they didn't want the season to end."