Comeback Cats Halted, Fall Just Short of Final Four

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Comeback Cats Halted, Fall Just Short of Final Four

The University of Kentucky women's volleyball team celebrates during the Elite Eight game of the NCAA Tournament against Nebraska on Saturday, December 9, 2017 in Lexington, Ky. Nebraska won the game 3-1.

It appeared the “Comeback Cats” had used up all their magic in the previous rounds of the NCAA tournament after dropping a four-set heartbreaker to the five-seeded Nebraska Cornhuskers (19-25, 22-25, 27-25, 22-25) Saturday, falling just short of the first Final Four in school history. The set won by the Wildcats was the first set Nebraska had dropped since November 3.

Like the previous two matches, Kentucky came out of the gate flat and struggled to get into an offensive rhythm due to the strategic serving from the Cornhuskers. However, after falling behind by as many nine in the first, the Wildcats once again clawed their way back, trailing by five at 24-19. They wouldn’t score again, though, and Nebraska took the first set 25-19.

The second set proved very similar to the first, as Kentucky once again found itself in a late hole at 22-16. They rallied to pull within two at 24-22, but a quick timeout from Nebraska gave them all the time they needed to thwart the run and take the 2-0 lead in the match. Both teams registered 17 kills in the second stanza, but the Cornhuskers hit a blistering .326, compared to just .233 for the Cats.

Kentucky showed some life in the third, storming out to a 15-10 lead midway through the set. However, after an 11-3 run from the Cornhuskers, the Cats were on the brink of elimination, trailing 21-18. Nebraska had match point at 24-22, but a 5-1 run from UK staved off three match points and gave Kentucky the 27-25 set three victory. Sophomore Leah Edmond contributed five of the Cats’ 18 kills in the stanza.

Set four was much closer than the previous three, as the two teams traded blows until being deadlocked at 19-all. A 4-1 run for the Cornhuskers forced head coach Craig Skinner to use his final timeout of the frame with his Wildcats trailing 23-20. It proved to be too late, though, as Nebraska won the match after an untimely service error from senior libero Ashley Dusek.

Senior Kaz Brown was sad to see her collegiate career come to an end, but expressed her pride in her team’s ability to hang tough despite the adversity they faced throughout the match.

“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,” Brown said.

Statistically, both teams performed almost identically, with Nebraska earning just one more kill than Kentucky with 61. On the defensive side, the Cats out-dug the Cornhuskers 58-54, and both teams finished with 12 blocks.

The difference in the game, however, came from the service line. As a team, UK finished with 12 service errors and just one ace, while Nebraska racked up five aces on the night.

“If you look at the stats, that was about as even as a match you could get,” Craig Skinner said. “Four and five seeds going at it toe-to-toe. They probably won the serving battle, which would have been the difference in the match, but give a lot of credit to Nebraska.”

Edmond hammered down a match-high 20 kills while hitting .208, her third-consecutive match topping the 20-kill mark. The outside hitter also added 11 digs and three blocks and was named to the Lexington All-Region team along with fellow outside hitter Avery Skinner. Edmond finished the season with 539 kills, the most ever under Craig Skinner.

Along with Edmond’s production, senior middle blockers Emily Franklin and Brown each finished their UK careers with 11 kills and five blocks, and Skinner added 10 hammers of her own. Skinner finished the NCAA Tournament having reached double figures in every match. Junior Brooke Morgan also made an impact offensively for the Cats, registering seven kills to go along with three digs and four blocks.

Defensively, Dusek once again led the charge in the back line, picking up 19 scoops in her collegiate finale. McKenzie Watson added nine and freshman Gabby Curry contributed eight.

Kentucky finishes the season 29-4 as Nebraska improves to 30-4. While the seniors’ careers are now over, the achievements they’ve acquired throughout their time at UK have left a lasting impact on the program.

“This team is special and our state, our volleyball community, our university will

remember this group for a long time,” Craig Skinner said. “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.”

This season alone, the Cats won an SEC Tournament for the first time since 1988, received a Top 4 seed in the tournament and made the Regional Finals for the first time in program history.

 

 

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