LEXINGTON, Ky. – Making their fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament the Kentucky Wildcats were poised to play in front of their home crowd in Memorial Coliseum Thursday night to open the national event. However standing in their way was a precise offensive attack from the Big Ten as the Michigan Wolverines outlasted UK in five sets to advance to the second round, ending UK’s spectacular season.
Michigan (25-8) used an impressive attack that hit with a .226 clip and had four players register 12 or more kills to survive Kentucky (26-6) in five thrilling sets. It was a high-caliber brand of volleyball in the NCAA Tournament, with both teams willing their way to points, digs and kills. Michigan eventually prevailed with set scores of 24-26, 25-16, 19-25, 25-19, 15-13.
“When it is 15-to-13 in the fifth set you know it is an even game,” said Kentucky coach Craig Skinner. “They (Michigan) are a very offensive minded team and we knew we had to stop their outside hitters. We neutralized them for a while, but then they got hot again at the end. It was a great match and give credit to Michigan for getting the win. Without a doubt in my mind, we both should be playing in the second rounds. It is what we were dealt though, and credit to Michigan for getting it done.”
The Wildcats got incredible final performances from seniors Queen Nzenwa and Alisa Pierce. With three block assists in tonight’s match Nzenwa finished her career with 557 block assists to take control of fourth place all-time on the Southeastern Conference list. Pierce concluded her four-year run with a season-best five digs to aid UK’s back line defensive effort. Nzenwa also found a groove from the service line, tallying a career-high two aces.
“When we got here the program was 3-and-13 in the SEC and now we have been to four straight NCAA Tournaments, so you can’t thank them (the two seniors) enough,” Skinner added. “Their commitment, teamwork and sacrifice helped this team become a top-20 program and compete for SEC titles. They are the only senior class in the history of our program to appear in four consecutive NCAA tournaments, and that’s an accomplishment they will always own.”
Sophomores Sarah Mendoza and Lauren Rapp paced Kentucky’s offense to the tune of 14 and 13 kills, respectively. Rapp added a team-leading six blocks, while Mendoza chipped in with 15 digs. The SEC Player of the Year, Sarah Rumely, contributed 40 assists, 13 digs, six kills and three blocks in another all-around performance. Sophomore Blaire Hiler, Nzenwa and freshman Becky Pavan tallied nine and seven kills, respectively. Pavan contributed six more blocks to add to finish with 140 rejections in her first season in the Blue and White. On the back line, junior BriAnne Sauer had 22 scoops while sophomore Laura Stokowski picked up 12 digs. Rapp’s 17.5 points was a team-best on the evening.
UK opened the match with a come-from-behind victory that helped ignite a Memorial Coliseum crowd of 1,346 Big Blue supporters. The Wildcats found themselves behind early as Michigan’s high-octane offense was clicking to start with. Michigan found themselves at set point with a four-point edge at 24-20, and that’s when Kentucky fired back. Rapp first found a spot to save set point, and then the UK defense forced the Wolverines into a hitting error. Out of a Michigan-called timeout, Rapp answered with another kill and Michigan followed with another errant shot. Rapp added another thunderous hammer to change the tide and give Kentucky set-point. The Wildcats finished the improbable run with their sixth straight point as the Wolverines hit into the net electrifying the crowd.
After Michigan claimed the second set with a 25-16 score to knot the match at one set a piece, Kentucky answered with their most complete performance of the night.
Pavan opened the third frame with a put-back kill, but Michigan rolled back to take an early 5-3 edge. Hiler found a spot and then Rumely added another kill for the Blue and White to bring the home team within one. Stokowski’s precision serving gave Kentucky an ace to tie the score at six. The two teams would then trade points back and forth until UK broke free for a two-point edge after back-to-back kills from Pavan and Rumely at 20-18. Out of a Michigan timeout, Rumely added another kill after a long rally between the two teams. Nzenwa came up with the first of her two aces on the night to give the Wildcats a four-point lead. After a service error by the Cats, Mendoza tallied a kill and then used a crafty joust to put Kentucky in position for the win. Pavan ended things for the Blue and White with a kill toward the back row and UK took a 2-1 advantage with a 25-19 victory.
Michigan added an incredible turnaround of its own as the Wildcats held a 15-12 lead mid-way through the fourth set. The Wolverines would go on to take the fourth set, forcing a fifth frame, after a 12-4 run to end the stanza.
Kentucky jumped out to an early 2-0 edge in the fifth after Rapp sliced the defense and then forced a Michigan attacking error, but Michigan would score the next two points to claim a two-point edge. Michigan would stretch its lead in the early going to 7-3 after a block, but Kentucky fired back scoring four of the next five points highlighted by a rejection off the arms of Nzenwa and Rumely. The two teams traded the next four points, before Michigan pulled away for a 12-9 edge after their third block in the set. Kentucky answered to pull within one after Mendoza found a spot and the Kentucky defense forced Michigan into a mistake. The Wolverines claimed set point at 14-11, before UK would respond by taking the next three points. Hiler and Pavan teamed up for a block to bring Kentucky within one point of tying the score, but a crafty Michigan touch sent the ball short and out of the reach of any Wildcat to win the opening round with a 15-13 fifth set win.
“I want to let everyone know how thankful we are for our fans to come out they way they did the last matches of the season. They were unbelievable,” Skinner added. “For them to chant and get after it towards the fourth and fifth set is very motivating for us. We will need their help to get to the next level and, we look forward to their support as we go forward.”
Kentucky’s incredible season ends with another gut-wrenching loss. The Blue and White finished the year with a 26-6 record overall, the fewest losses since finishing 29-4 in 1993. Coincidentally, that 1993 team ended their season at home, hosting the NCAA Tournament and falling in three sets to Duke.
The Wildcats provided many highlights to the 2008 season, non more exciting than the incredible come-from-behind five-set win over No. 12 Florida in front of the fifth-largest crowd in school history. The win snapped a 38-match losing streak to the Gators. UK captured two early season tournaments, and competed through an SEC slate that included a school-record 17 conference victories. UK returns 12 players from this season’s squad, including five starters and their libero in 2009.
Skinner has led his team to four-straight 17 win seasons and back-to-back 20 win years. He is the only UK coach in school history to lead his team into post-season play in each of his seasons with the team.
Memorial Coliseum will host Michigan and Saint Louis tomorrow night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Match time is slated to begin at 7 p.m. The winner will advance to the Regional Semifinals in Seattle, Wash.