LEXINGTON, Ky. – The University of Kentucky’s season came to a close with a 3-1 (22-25, 25-21, 22-25, 20-25) loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s second round Sunday afternoon in Memorial Coliseum.
The Wildcats (22-9), making their ninth-straight NCAA appearance and seeded 15th in the tournament, battled the Spartans (23-11) in an entertaining, back-and-forth battle for a berth in next weekend’s NCAA Regional, hosted by UK in Memorial Coliseum.
“The effort that’s put in and how hard these guys work, it’s tough to swallow when you don’t come out on the winning end of the match like this,” UK head coach Craig Skinner said. “You have to give Michigan State credit because they killed the ball at an extremely high rate in sets three and four and that was the difference. The effort (by us) was there the entire match. They (we) competed hard and you can’t ask for more than that. You just hope that you execute better so you can score the points.”
The match marked the final collegiate contest for UK’s four seniors. Whitney Billings, Alexandra Morgan, Jessi Greenberg and Desirre’ Wilkerson have helped lead the Wildcats to three straight 20-win seasons and NCAA Tournament berths in every season. Kentucky’s visit to the second round this season marks the first time in program history UK has won at least one NCAA game in three straight years.
“They’ve (the seniors) been committed since day one but you really saw a sense of pride and urgency for the program in the last half of the season,” Skinner said of the seniors. “Nothing is ever given to you and at this point in the game, it really starts to hit home that it’s not given to you so you have to go for it. All of these guys went for it. Very proud of Jessi [Greenberg] and her commitment to this program and [Desirre’ Wilkerson] for changing schools and committing to Kentucky volleyball and Whitney [Billings] and [Alexandra Morgan] for putting five years of their lives into this program and a piece of them will always be here with us.”
Billings paced the way offensively for Kentucky, with 18 kills on .204 hitting to go along with 13 digs for her 43rd career double-double outing. Junior Lauren O’Conner added seven kills, while Morgan and sophomore Kayla Tronick each tallied six and hit .333 and .364, respectively. Sophomore setter Morgan Bergren dished out 38 assists in addition to having three kills, and freshman Anni Thomasson had four kills.
Junior libero Jackie Napper had 21 digs, while freshman Kelsey Wolf registered nine and Thomasson seven. Morgan added three blocks and three digs. Billings and Thomasson each contributed two of UK’s five blocks.
Kentucky hit .205 in the match with 47 kills, while Michigan State utilized a .247 clip with 66 kills. The Wildcats had 16 attack errors while the Spartans committed 26. Both squads produced three service aces, and MSU held an 8-5 edge in blocks.
It was a 7-0 run that fueled a Wildcat comeback and propelled them to a 25-21 win in the second set to even the match at one win apiece. Michigan State won the first point, and was ahead by as much as three at 8-5, but that’s when Kentucky turned in four straight tallies to take its first lead of the set at 9-8. With the score tied at 11-all, UK lost the lead as MSU scored five of six to take a 15-12 advantage. That’s when the comeback began for the Blue and White.
The Wildcats scored the next seven points, the largest run of any team in the match, to go ahead 19-15. The Spartans stopped the run and scored two straight, but UK answered right back with two straight and five of the next seven to take a 24-19 lead and set up match point. MSU took the next two points before O’Conner sealed the win with a kill.
In the second set, Billings and Bergren each registered a set-high-tying three kills, while Billings added a set-high-tying six digs. Wolf had five of UK’s 19 digs as the Blue and White hit .119 with 12 kills in the frame.
The Wildcats lost a close first set, 25-22 that featured five ties and four lead changes. MSU jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, but never led by more than three early, until Kentucky pulled ahead at 12-11. A block by Morgan and Thomasson tied it at 11 before Billings combined with Morgan for a block to push the Wildcats ahead. The Spartans responded with a 4-0 run to lead 15-12, but the large advantage didn’t last long, as the Wildcats quickly rattled off five of six points to regain the lead at 17-16. MSU answered to take the lead again, which they extended to three at 23-20. Kentucky scored the next two, but could not get any closer.
Billings produced four of UK’s 12 kills, while Napper had seven digs. Morgan and Thomasson each had a hand in two of Kentucky’s three blocks.
The Wildcats led for much of the middle of the third set, but a late Spartan rally gave the visitors a 25-22 win and a 2-1 lead in the match. When UK took a 5-4 lead, it was already the third lead change of the frame, an advantage the Blue and White would keep until the score was knotted at 19. Kentucky’s lead was as much as five twice, but Michigan State rallied to tie the score, first at 16-all before recording four consecutive tallies to lead 22-19. UK got as close as two twice, including 24-22, but was unable to get any closer.
Once again, it was Billings who led the way for the home team, with five kills. O’Conner added three on .429 hitting and Napper tallied four digs. In the set, UK hit .250 with 12 kills with just two attack errors.
Kentucky never led in the final frame, but kept it close in a 25-20 defeat. Michigan State opened up to an 8-2 lead, which prompted a UK timeout. Out of the break, the Wildcats crept closer and scored six of the next eight to get within two, at 10-8. UK prevented MSU from extending its lead past four and was within two several times, up until a 4-2 run Spartan made it 23-18. The two teams traded the next four points, but the Blue and White could not close the gap.
Billings had six kills and hit .417 in the frame with five digs, while Napper had seven digs. UK hit .278 in the final set with 11 kills and 16 digs. The Wildcats committed just one attack error.
Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum will play host to the NCAA Regionals Dec. 13-14. The regional will get underway Dec. 13, with semifinal contests at 5 and 7 p.m. ET, while the regional final will commence Dec. 14 at 4 p.m. UK is one of four sites selected for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight matchups with one team advancing to the Final Four in Seattle, Wash., from the Lexington Region. This marks the second time in three seasons Memorial Coliseum will host this premier volleyball event. Tickets for the event are available now at UKathletics.com/tickets.
Visit UKathletics.com for the most up-to-date information on the Kentucky volleyball team and all 22 varsity sports. For additional info on the volleyball team like Kentucky Volleyball on Facebook or follow the team on Twitter at @KentuckyVB.