LEXINGTON, Ky. - The No. 19 University of Kentucky volleyball team defeated in-state rival Louisville in a five-set thriller (17-25, 25-23, 25-20, 19-25, 15-11) Tuesday night in Memorial Coliseum.
Kentucky (5-2) extended its winning streak to five straight matches, and four in a row at home. The victory over Louisville (2-4) came in front of a crowd of 1,888 eager to see UK win its third straight home match against U of L and break a 25-25 tie in the all-time series between the Bluegrass State rivals. The Wildcats now own a 14-10 series edge in Lexington.
“We were matched in a lot of different ways,” UK head coach Craig Skinner said. “[It was a] gutty performance, in my opinion, for both teams. It was back-and-forth. It wasn’t pretty volleyball the whole time, but I’m proud of our kids for the way they stepped up and made some great plays. It could have gone the other way after the fourth, but they came out ready to go. I give our players a lot of credit. A couple of great digs, a couple of key swings, and some good serving by Whitney (Billings) there at the end.”
Kentucky resumes action with the Bluegrass Battle tournament featuring both UK and Louisville on Friday and Saturday. UK takes on Pepperdine at 7 p.m. on Friday, before meeting No. 4 Minnesota at the same hour on Saturday.
In addition to witnessing one of college volleyball’s most intense rivalries, UK fans watched history unfold when senior Whitney Billings notched her sixth dig of the match. The historic dig gave the right side hitter 1,000 in her career. Combined with more than 1,000 career kills, she is the first player in the modern era of Kentucky volleyball to achieve 1,000 kills and digs in her career.
Freshman Anni Thomasson led UK with a team-high-tying 13 kills and a team best 16 digs. Both marks were career highs for the outside hitter, who posted her second double-double in the last three games.
Senior Alexandra Morgan also contributed 13 kills, while sophomore Shelby Workman added 11. Workman matched her career best and Morgan’s total resulted in a season high. Morgan led the way for UK with a .407 hitting clip.
A career best 51 assists from sophomore Morgan Bergren was a match high. On the defensive side, Morgan had five blocks to lead the Wildcats.
“Four of our last six have gone five,” Skinner said about the series with Louisville. “It was a battle. You can throw out records, you can throw out our last match, you can throw out statistics, and it always just seems to be a real competition. You see a lot of emotions, a lot of adrenaline, and a lot of nerves. Tonight was no exception.”
Louisville took the first set by a 25-17 margin, but Kentucky responded by winning the following two, 25-23 and 25-20 to take a 2-1 advantage. The Cardinal claimed the fourth stanza 25-19, which set up the decisive fifth set.
“It’s a lot of experience,” Skinner said. “You can’t create that in practice. You can’t create being up big in a set. You can’t create being down big in the fourth and coming back in the fifth. We weathered the storm and it says a lot about the toughness of these guys running at us. “
The final set was the closest of the night and featured seven ties. After the Cardinals took an early 7-3 lead, the Wildcats wouldn’t allow them to score again before they tied it at seven. It was knotted again at eight, nine, and 10 before the Cards took an 11-10 lead. It was their last advantage of the match, as the Wildcats scored the final five points of the contest to secure the victory. UK’s 12th and 14th points came courtesy of kills from Thomasson. A bad set by Louisville gave Kentucky the win and raised the noise level in Memorial Coliseum to a new level.
“I just thought we left everything out there and all of us knew we were going to win that game,” Morgan said. “We knew we were going to fight our hardest for every point. Morgan (Bergren) had a huge block which gave us a ton of momentum and then Anni’s (Thomasson) big swing, all the momentum was on our side. We knew we had to keep the momentum on our side so we could win the game.”
The match’s opening frame began like so many others this year. UK has played plenty of close sets this season, and the opening stanza against its in-state rivals began no differently. The Wildcats opened with a 2-0 lead, thanks to a kill from Thomasson and an ace from Billings. Kentucky maintained its lead until the score reached 9-9, but it was an advantage that never reached more than two points. After Louisville gained an 11-9 lead, UK tied it at 11 for the fifth tie of the set. The Cardinals responded with a 6-0 run to take a 17-11 edge they would not relinquish.
The second set began much the way the first did, with back-and-forth action, but it was the Cardinals who had the lead 7-5 before the Wildcats went on a 7-0 run to take their first lead of the set, one they would never give up. From UK’s 12-7 lead to a 19-14 advantage, the two teams traded points, with neither team taking more than two straight points. That was when Kentucky scored three straight to take a 22-14 lead. Louisville wouldn’t go down without a fight, however. With a 24-18 lead, U of L staved off five-straight set point attempts and got within one before an attack error gave UK the set victory at 25-23.
The Wildcats couldn’t have asked for a better start to the third set and began the frame on a 6-0 run. UK would keep its six point edge until U of L closed the gap and got to within two at 13-11 and 14-12. Kentucky responded right back with three straight points to lengthen its lead to 17-12. The two teams would trade the next 10 points to make it 22-18 when the Cardinals scored four consecutive points to cut the Wildcats’ lead to three. A kill from Morgan followed, which set up set point, and a U of L attack error ended the set and gave UK its 2-1 advantage.
Just how the third set began with a 6-0 UK run, the fourth frame started with a 6-0 U of L run. A strong kill from Billings gave the Wildcats their first point at 6-1, but they had trouble getting any closer until late in the set. With the score 20-13 in favor of the visitors, the Blue and White went on a 4-1 run that brought the score to 21-17 and the UK faithful to their feet. Two points came at the hands of a Billings kill to help make it just a four point deficit. It was 23-19 when a U of L kill and a UK attack error ended the frame with the victory to the Cardinals.
Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum will play host to the NCAA Regionals Dec. 13-14. 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.