LEXINGTON, Ky. – A comeback victory in the fourth set capped by two of 15th-ranked Kentucky’s season-high 15 blocks propelled the Wildcats to a 3-1 (25-17, 25-23, 18-25, 25-20) victory over Alabama Sunday afternoon at Memorial Coliseum.
Three players registered six or more block assists in the victory including a career-high eight from senior Whitney Billings. Sophomore Sara Schwarzwalder matched her with eight, and senior Alexandra Morgan totaled six.
The Wildcats (15-5, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) were down 16-15 in the fourth set to the Crimson Tide (17-6, 5-4 SEC) before coming back to score the next three points and four of the final five points to seal the win.
“I’m real proud of our kids,” UK head coach Craig Skinner said. “I thought we went soft in set three and Alabama played well. To completely reverse that and play as tough as we did at the end says something about the character of this group. So, proud of them.”
UK outhit Alabama in three of the four frames and recorded a 15-5 advantage in blocks, including 5-0 scores in the first and fourth sets. In the match, the Blue and White hit .330 with 55 kills, while the Tide hit .195 with 54 kills. Kentucky will hit the road for a pair of tough conference road tests next. UK will take on Arkansas on Friday, Nov. 1 and visit 11th-ranked and undefeated Missouri on Sunday.
“Alabama’s a good team and they’re tough and they keep coming at you,” Skinner added. “They got us on our heels set three and at the beginning of set four, so we needed to dig down and produce. When you’re able to do that and able to execute and get kills when you needed it, it is an emotional sport.”
Morgan led the Wildcats with 14 kills with a match high .619 hitting clip. Billings had 12 kills in addition to her eight blocks. Schwarzwalder had 10 kills on .600 hitting reaching double-figure kills for the second time in three matches. Junior Lauren O’Conner posted 11 kills and added four blocks.
“I saw a little extra in her today,” Skinner said of Morgan. “With her aggressiveness in attacking and aggressiveness blocking, that’s the Zan we need to see day in and day out. But she’s such a presence, such a factor over there every team has to pay attention to her. When she produces like that, it makes us all better.”
Freshman Anni Thomasson had 10 digs to go along with six kills, while redshirt freshman Kelsey Wolf made her first career start and registered two digs. Sophomore setter Morgan Bergren led the match with 47 assists in addition to contributing four digs, two blocks and two kills. Junior libero Jackie Napper posted a match-high 12 digs in the win.
UK tallied a 25-17 win in the first set on the strengths of a .520 hitting percentage and five blocks. The Wildcats had 15 kills in the frame and held the Crimson Tide to zero blocks, while the Tide hit .200 with 14 kills. Kentucky was led by Morgan’s five kills on just five attempts and four blocks. O’Conner added four kills, while Schwarzwalder contributed three. UK had an early 4-2 lead in the set, but Alabama rallied to take a 7-4 lead. Kentucky responded by scoring seven of the next eight points for an 11-8 advantage. The Tide got within two at 13-11, but the Blue and White would not let it get any closer and scored seven of the last 10 points to secure the win.
Billings posted a set-high-tying five kills in the second set with a set-high .556 hitting clip to lead Kentucky to a 25-23 victory in the second frame. Schwarzwalder added three kills and three blocks. The Wildcats, who had 13 kills and hit .250, held the Crimson Tide to a .100 hitting percentage with 13 kills. The frame featured four lead changes and eight ties, with the last even score coming at 19-19. That’s when UK registered three straight blocks – with Schwarzwalder assisting on all three and Billings on two – to take a 22-19 lead. Alabama fought back to get it within one three times, but with a 24-23 lead, a kill from Morgan was the set winner.
The 25-20 win for the Wildcats in the fourth set came in comeback fashion. UK trailed 16-15, but rallied to score the next three points to take an 18-16 lead. Kentucky and Alabama traded points until, at 21-19, the Blue and White notched four of the final five points to claim the match. Billings posted four kills in the frame as UK hit .355 with 14 kills, compared to Alabama’s .189 hitting clip and 15 kills. For the third set in the match, the Wildcats outblocked the Crimson Tide, with a 5-0 advantage in the final stanza. Billings and Schwarzwalder each accounted for three block assists.
The Wildcats suffered a 25-18 defeat in the third set, in which the Crimson Tide out-hit them .381-.222 and registered three blocks to UK’s two. While Kentucky had 13 kills to Alabama’s 12, UA had four service aces, while UK had none. Morgan’s four kills led UK and O’Conner had two blocks. The Wildcats were down 4-2, but responded with four of the next five points to take a 6-5 lead. Alabama scored the next three points to take an 8-6 lead they would never yield.
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.