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Kentucky volleyball loses heartbreaker to No. 1 Texas

Texas' Haley Eckerman, 10, scored over KEntucky's Christine Harmann, and Becky Pavan, 22, as Kentucky played #1 Texas  in the NCAA Volleyball Championships at the University of Kentucky  on Friday December 9, 2011  in Lexington, Ky.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Texas' Haley Eckerman, 10, scored over KEntucky's Christine Harmann, and Becky Pavan, 22, as Kentucky played #1 Texas in the NCAA Volleyball Championships at the University of Kentucky on Friday December 9, 2011 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

No telling how many of the 4,022 fans in Memorial Coliseum went home Friday night ready to collapse.

Unseeded Kentucky gave top-seeded Texas an exhausting effort, leaving absolutely nothing in the tank, in the NCAA volleyball regional semifinals.

Yet it was the Longhorns who advanced with a 3-1 win (25-23, 22-25, 27-25, 25-23).

That after ninth-seeded UCLA swept four-time defending national champion and eighth-seeded Penn State 3-0 (25-20, 25-22, 25-21).

Texas (25-4) will take a 17-match winning streak into Saturday's 4:30 p.m. regional finals against UCLA (27-6). The winner will advance to the Final Four, next weekend at San Antonio, Texas.

"It was a heavyweight fight. (UK Coach) Craig Skinner's done an amazing job here," said Jerritt Elliott, coach of the Longhorns.

A longtime friend of the Wildcats' coach, Elliott said he knew Skinner would put UK on the right path when he came from Nebraska.

"Tonight showed how disciplined they are, their fight. This match could have gone either way," Elliott said. "We made some plays at the end. ... I was very pleased with how we fought tonight and, defensively, how we battled.

"This was an amazing match. This was the best team we've faced all year. I thought they were the most consistent team. They never let us off the hook, and there were not a lot of runs."

UK was in the Sweet Sixteen for the second time in three years. Skinner, who has taken the Cats to the NCAAs in each of his seven seasons, saluted his team, his staff and the partisan crowd.

"Sports is all about recruiting and, hopefully, we recruited some new fans," he said. "Just an unbelievable atmosphere."

Texas scored the final two points of the opening game, winning 25-23. Neither team led by more than three.

UK closed the second game with a 7-2 run to win 25-22. Again, neither team led by more than three.

After intermission, though, Texas got on a roll and opened a 17-11 lead — the greatest margin of the night.

There was no quit in the Cats, though.

UK battled back to tie at 24 and 25. But back-to-back kills by Sha'Dare McNeal and Haley Eckerman closed out a 27-25 Texas win.

In the final game, the teams were never separated by more than two points.

A service error gave UK its last lead, 21-20.

The Cats' Ann Armes came through with her 11th kill to tie at 23 before Texas scored two in a row to advance.

"It was a great team game to play in," said Eckerman, who had 16 kills. "I think we did a great job at sticking together in this crazy environment."

Bailey Webster led Texas with 17 kills, and Rachael Adams had 15.

"I thought we could do a lot of things defensively. Blocking. Attacking. ... The one thing I did not expect tonight was for Texas to play the floor defense they did," Skinner said. "We hit some rockets, and they came up with them, and that was probably the difference in the match."

Led by Sarah Palmer with 16 and McNeal with 14, the Longhorns had 58 digs to UK's 51.

"We weren't expecting it, but it was something we could hang with," UK setter Christine Hartmann said of the Longhorn digs. "It wasn't going to stop us. It wasn't going to take us down by 10 points in a game."

UK was led in kills by Ashley Frazier with 16, Lauren O'Connor with 13, and Becky Pavan with 12 (and six blocks). Stephanie Klefot, two-time libero of the year in the Southeastern Conference, had 21 digs. Hartmann totaled 52 assists.

"I don't think that people expected too much of us," Frazier said, doing her best not to cry. "The fact that we were there with them point-for-point the entire game just speaks to how good both teams are, and I'm just so proud for the way that we played.

"If we had to go out, I guess this is the way I would want it to be. Because we played our hearts out."

Defending champs out

In the opener, Rachael Kidder led UCLA with 19 kills, and Kelly Reeves had 11, to go with 11 digs and three block assists.

Ariel Scott had 11 kills for Penn State (25-8).

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