By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky’s hopes of making the Final Four were in jeopardy in a match against Western Kentucky that UK coach Craig Skinner’s team was expected to win Friday night in the NCAA Tournament second round in Lexington.
But Western Kentucky, a team UK beat earlier this season, won not only the first set, but the first two sets. However, the Comeback Cats pulled off a miraculous finish to win in five sets and advance to the Sweet Sixteen where they will host BYU.
“Obviously these are special wins when you can come back like that. It’s probably the toughest I’ve ever seen a Kentucky volleyball team play since I’ve been here,” Skinner said after the match. “For the last hour and a half to will ourselves back in and fight for the win. Just really proud for finding a way to get it done.”
Skinner also said the UK fans in Memorial Coliseum created a unique atmosphere that helped his team.
“If you haven’t been a volleyball fan and you were here tonight, there’s no way you’re not going to be from here on out. That’s as exciting of a sporting event as you’re going to see. I’ve said it before, I think there’s a movement in our sport of people wanting to watch this game and watch how exciting it is. It continues to grow year in and year out. We’ve had great crowds, and the last two days these crowds have been unreal,” Skinner said.
“They’ve willed us. I don’t hear the crowd very often to be honest with you, I’m trying to manage the game, but there’s a couple times I heard tonight them chanting ‘Go Big Blue and it was certainly motivating. No question.”
Senior Kaz Brown, one of the team’s most outgoing players, admitted she was at a loss for words after the win and thanked the crowd for its role in the victory.
“We have to give them a special shout out because the fans were amazing. Everybody, anywhere I’ve went in the past week, I’ve had people come up and congratulate us and I think that’s really special. We play really hard for each other and for our fans. Their support has been unmatched this season and we can’t thank them enough,” Brown said.
The senior said she thought maybe for a “split second” that her UK career might end but she believes UK is the “best game give team in the country” and she was confident UK would win.
“I think when we’re on that we’re really hard to stop. We like to play in big games. We like it when the crowd is involved,” Brown said.
She felt UK’s defense helped turn the match back in Kentucky’s favor.
“I think once we shut down their hitters a little bit with our blocking defense, that’s what kind of changed the momentum and had things going our way,” she said.
Skinner credited Brooke Morgan and Darian Mack for making that defensive presence felt.
“Brooke is one of the most dynamic right-side blockers in the country. Darian allows us flexibility in our serve receive patterns and to hit some combination plays. Brooke, whether she blocks the ball or not, someone who is hitting against her thinks about her. She can change how a hitter thinks as they attack the ball,” Skinner said.
Western Kentucky coach Travis Hudson felt bad for his team but also credited Kentucky for what it did.
“Our kids played their guts out. They gave me everything that they had and Kentucky played like champions. We gave them our best shot. Kentucky is a high-character group of kids. Kentucky is a high-character staff. They’re well coached, we knew they weren’t going to go away. We certainly didn’t think we were going to cruise on out of here in three games,” Hudson said.
“I have nothing but respect for what they did and what they accomplished in coming back and winning this match. I was counting points, and I think they scored 103 points in this match and we scored 102. That makes it pretty tough to swallow. That’s the way things go sometimes.
“As I told our kids, there are 63 teams in this tournament that are going to go home disappointed, but all the reasons they hurt so bad right now are all the reasons that I’m so proud of them because they were invested in this, they poured their hearts into this, and certainly have no regrets.”