By LARRY VAUGHT
This was not the ending Kentucky’s seniors wanted, but it was an ending few — other than perhaps them — could have ever envisioned when they came to UK.
Ashley Dusek, Kaz Brown and Emily Franklin sat together in the media interview room Saturday after night after Nebraska won an intense, thrilling 25-19, 25-22, 25-27, 25-22 match to advance to the Final Four and end UK’s season in the Elite Eight.
But it was the first time in 30 years UK had been to the Elite Eight and the first time in coach Craig Skinner’s successful 13-year tenure. Kentucky lost to a team used to winning — Nebraska is going to its third Final Four in the last four years and has lost four sets in its last 17 matches. It is the only team in the country this season with a win over No. 1 Penn State.
Skinner twice worked for Nebraska coach John Cook, so the Nebraska coach knew what kind of battle his team would face.
“We had to dig as deep tonight as we have all season. I was really, really impressed with Kentucky,” said Cook. “It was great for our team to dig down and make some great plays. It had to be fun to watch if you were at the game.”
I covered a lot of sporting events at the collegiate and high school level the last 42 years. Watching UK beat BYU in five sets Friday and then come back from being down 2-0 to almost get it to a fifth set against traditional power Nebraska now ranks among the top events I’ve ever covered. Right now I would put it with the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Louisville and the 1978 NCAA championship UK won in St. Louis. I might think of a few more, but it’s hard to top the effort and character this team has.
If I was UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart, I would make the UK football team watch video of the volleyball team to see a team that never lacked effort no matter the score and never played with anything but great character.
“As competitor you want to be mad because you just lost a competition but I can’t find any reason to be mad,” Skinner said after the match ended UK’s remarkable season that saw UK get one of the top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. “I am just happy to have been able to coach this team. They did everything right.”
He said he tried to find words to “make it feel right” for his players after the loss but couldn’t before adding he thought his players knew what they had done and how proud they should be.
Memorial Coliseum had plenty of UK fans who agreed and the match was full of great plays on both sides. Nebraska is now 30-4 while UK finished 29-4.
Nebraska accounted for 61 kills. UK had 60. Kentucky had two more assists and four more digs. Both teams finished with 12 blocks.
I asked Skinner how he could ever get mad at this team for the way it plays.
“You don’t. I mean I think probably I yelled two or three times this season. May have been back in August, but it wasn’t hardly at all because they know what to do. They knew what the expectations were,” the UK coach said. “They knew how hard to work.
“They knew that if they didn’t work hard enough they couldn’t be what they wanted to be. I said in the beginning that bad teams have no leadership, good teams are led by their coaches, and great teams are led by the players, and the players led this year.”
One of Kentucky’s best leaders was senior libero Ashley Dusek. She had a contagious smile and a feisty personality. When UK lost the first two sets, she never quit talking to her teammates.
What was she telling them?
“That we just have to keep pushing. It’s a team thing, so we all know what we need to get done in each set. It was more of a group effort kind of thing. We knew we were down two sets and we still had to push and we had nothing to lose, so we just went out there and played our game,” Dusek said.
Kentucky beat Western Kentucky and BYU in comeback fashion in five sets in its previous two NCAA matches. The players were ready to make it three straight five-set wins.
“I mean they call us the ‘Comeback Cats’ so we had that mindset and obviously, it didn’t turn out in our favor but we were definitely headed that way,” middle blocker Franklin said.
Kentucky fought off three match points in set three to get to a fourth set. Again, it was no surprise to UK players or fans that it happened.
“I think it says a lot about what this team is all about. All season long we’ve had to fight through adversity whether it be on the court or off,” Brown said. “This team is really tough. As you can see.
“We had a lot of young players that didn’t show their youth that much and I think that shows a lot about the type of kids we bring in. This team has fought like hell all season long, so I think if we were going to go out that was the only way we could.”
They did and that’s what makes them so much fun.
Sure, they cried. All three seniors wiped away tears in the media room so I can only imagine what the team locker room was like. But the tears of sadness should also have included tears of joy for what a special season — UK beat then No. 1 Florida and shared the SEC championship for the first time — this was.
“This team is special and our state, our volleyball community, our university will remember this group for a long time. Like I told them in the locker room, these seniors have left a foundation for us to spring board off. I’m not going to cry. It’s emotional because I feel for these guys, but just proud to be their coach,” Skinner said.