LEXINGTON, Ky. – All season long the 13th ranked Kentucky volleyball team’s engine ran on offense. But, on its way to the Sweet Sixteen it was the Kentucky defense that rejected 17 attacks to pace the Wildcats to a 3-0 (25-20, 25-22, 25-17) victory over the tournament’s No. 14 seed in Oregon. Junior Lauren Rapp led the way with a career-high 10 blocks to lead UK to its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1992 and the first under head coach Craig Skinner.
Six Kentucky players tallied two or more blocks led by Rapp’s career high. Sophomore middle blockers Gretchen Giesler and Becky Pavan each accounted for six each. Junior Blaire Hiler chipped in with four, while junior Sarah Mendoza and senior Sarah Rumely each posted two in helping UK to a season-best 17-block performance.
“One of the themes that we’ve had on our board all year is that good teams never stop getting better,” Skinner said. “I think that’s been evident the last week and it’s hard to do once you get toward the end of the season. But, the nice thing was our blocking has been OK this year and it really turned out tonight, and that is critical in the NCAA Tournament. I’m very proud of these girls. We were very focused tonight and this was a great win.”
UK’s previous season-high was a 14.5 block performance against LSU in Baton Rouge in the middle of September. A season-ago Kentucky finished the season ranked seventh in the country in blocking, but this season the Wildcats have engineered a top-10 offensive team. Despite the season-high in blocks, Kentucky’s offense continued to put up stellar figures. The Wildcats posted 42 kills which is an average of 14 per set. UK averages 14.75 for the season in kills per match.
Mendoza led the way for the 27th time this season with 14 kills on the night. Pavan was the next highest with eight hammers, but six players had four or more points off of kills in tonight’s match a sign of the balance the Wildcats have had all season long. Rapp posted six kills with Rumely and Hiler also tallying five kills. Giesler chipped in with four. Rumely dished out 34 assists on the night and the Blue and White struck for a .280 hitting percentage.
Senior BriAnne Sauer continue her senior season highlight reel from the back row as she led all defensive players with 20 digs from the back row. Mendoza added 11 for her fourth straight double-double effort. Rumely, Rapp and freshman Stephanie Klefot contributed eight scoops to aid the Wildcat cause.
“I thought we set up really well,” Skinner said. “We were very assertive and aggressive. Typically when you don’t block well, you reach your hands all over the place. We were very structured and disciplined in what we did and we had a great game plan, which the team followed extremely well.”
Kentucky began the match with a 25-20 victory in the opening set. With a win in the first stanza, Kentucky has now stretched its record this season to 25-0 when it wins the opening frame.
The Wildcats used a .262 attacking percentage and registered 16 kills to open the match. Kentucky also ignited the crowd of 1,182 fans with six blocks in the first period. Mendoza led the attack with five kills and Rapp turned back five Oregon attempts. UK’s defense limited Oregon’s offense to a mere .163 attacking percentage and 14 kills.
UK struck first when Pavan found an open spot on the court for the 1-0 advantage. It was a lead they would never relinquish as the Blue and White led from start to finish in the first set. Kentucky had a 5-1 lead after a kill from Rapp. The Ducks rallied back and brought the score back to within one at the 7-6 mark. However the Wildcats would continue to chip away with mini-runs throughout the frame, gaining its biggest lead at 20-14 behind a kill from Hiler. Mendoza capped off the win with a crowd-pleasing hammer to give the Wildcats a 25-20 set one win.
It was Oregon’s turn to begin a set with a point as the Ducks took the first score of the second set with a kill. Oregon then returned the point to the Blue and White when a Duck server tossed the ball into the net. Kentucky benefited from an Oregon attacking error to take its first lead of the stanza at 3-2. The two teams would continue to swap points back and forth until Kentucky opened up a 16-12 advantage when the UK defense forced another errant attack by the Ducks. Oregon would not go away and eventually pulled to within one again at 19-18. However, the Wildcats would take the next two points behind a kill from Pavan and another attacking error by Oregon for a 21-18 lead. That was all the more room the Blue and White needed as a kill from Mendoza once again clinched the set with UK out in front by a 25-22 margin.
Kentucky hit with a match high .316 clip and Mendoza paced the attack with six kills. UK turned back seven Oregon attempts in the second set with Rapp once again leading the way with four rejections. Oregon only had a .178 attacking clip, but scored 17 of its points off of kills.
Oregon jumped out to an early 2-0 advantage in the third set, but Kentucky came roaring back to knot the score at four apiece after a kill from Rapp. UK’s dominating presence at the net continued to fluster Oregon’s offense and the Wildcats would earn a lead at 5-4 it would never give back when the Ducks sailed a shot wide. A 4-2 run midway through the set in which UK had a pair of kills and forced two Oregon misfires enabled the Wildcats to claim a 17-12 advantage. UK would earn its largest lead of the set at 21-15 behind another Oregon erroneous attempt. Back-to-back kills from Mendoza and Pavan helped clinch a spot in the Sweet Sixteen for the Blue and White.
In the final set it was UK’s defensive effort that sealed the win for the homestanding team. Sauer accounted for seven digs in the frame as the Blue and White picked up 19 digs in the set. UK also posted four more blocks led by three from Giesler. Rapp, Mendoza and Pavan all had three kills in the final frame to provide the Wildcats with enough offense to stave off an Oregon run.
With the victory the Wildcats advance to the Minneapolis, Minn., Regional site. Kentucky’s next opponent is not yet set, but could be the tournament’s No. 3 overall seed in Florida State. Match times have not been determined for a Dec. 11th match.