After tough start, Kentucky bounces back strong, riding nine-match win streak

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Kentucky libero Gabby Curry gets the pancake earlier this season at USC/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Say this about Kentucky. Coach Craig Skinner didn’t under-schedule to start the season.

“Never,” Skinner said with a smile.

Indeed, because the Wildcats lost their first three matches in a tournament at USC, to Creighton (now ranked 10th and unbeaten in the Big East), USC (now No. 13 and in second place in the Pac-12) and to Northern Iowa (unbeaten in the Missouri Valley).

“I think it’s good to be challenged,” Skinner said. “You’ve got to find out what you’re all about.”

What No. 15 Kentucky — No. 8 in the NCAA RPI — is all about now is a team that has won nine matches in row, stands 12-4 overall, and is 6-0 in the Southeastern Conference.

Kentucky coach Craig Skinner

Kentucky plays at LSU (7-11, 2-5) on Friday, trying to keep pace with No. 11 Florida (17-3, 8-0), which has played two more league games.

The key?

“I’ve been impressed with whole team,” ,” said Skinner, whose team has held its eight opponents to hitting below .200. “I can look at every player who’s played for us and even the ones who haven’t played very much and every single one of them is incredibly better now than they were in August and especially in the spring.

“I think it’s probably the best serving and passing team we’ve ever had. I think it’s one of the most efficient teams we’ve ever had, and you can’t do that unless everybody is good at the game of volleyball.”

There are plenty of Wildcats who are. This is a season after which Kentucky lost a loaded senior class that included All-American middle Kaz Brown, middle Emily Franklin, All-American libero Ashley Dusek, and right side Darian Mack.

And don’t forget that last year, Kentucky, which finished 29-4 overall, 17-1 in the SEC after going 1-1 with Florida, was a top-four seed. The Wildcats lost in the regional final to eventual-champion Nebraska.

But it wasn’t like the cupboard was bare entering this season.

Junior All-American Leah Edmond is one of the top outside hitters in the country, and this season she leads UK with 275 kills (4.51/set), averages 1.49 digs and has 10 aces.

“And the thing about her is she’s always working on little things to make her game better,” Skinner said, “to off-speed to seeing the whole court to defense. That is part of the culture of this program, that you have to get better. If you don’t, someone’s going to pass you up.”

Sophomore All-American Madison Lilley is among the best setters in the country, averaging 10.98 assists/set, but has a team-leading 20 aces and is third on the team at 2.05 digs/set and had 34 blocks, four solo.

“She executes every skill in the game and is never satisfied,” Skinner said. “Every week I’ll ask her what she wants to work on and she’ll have two or three very specific things that she wants to improve.”

Senior middle Brooke Morgan, who has moved from the right side, has taken full advantage. The 6-foot-5 Morgan leads the SEC in hitting percentage (.434) and is averaging 2.43 kills and leads UK in blocks with 52, one solo.

Freshman outside Alli Stumler is averaging 2.31 kills and sophomore libero Gabby Curry ranks seventh in the SEC in digs at 3.95/set. She has 14 aces and even three kills.

“We handle the ball well and we’re very disciplined,” Skinner said. “One of the things we have to get better at is we have to convert more digs to kills. That’s going to be really important when you’re playing good sets against good teams.”

After that first tournament, it didn’t easier, but the Wildcats responded well. They came home for their own tournament and beat College of Charleston, Dayton and Kansas, and then lost at Texas to the now No. 8 Longhorns.

“If we didn’t have a group of competitors and a group of high-character kids, they might have been like, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ But practice got better after that (first tournament). We were practicing OK during preseason, we had some knick-knack injuries here and there, but after that tournament we haven’t had a bad practice,” Skinner said.

Since then, the victories have included beating Sun Belt leader Texas State, current No. 21 and ACC leader Louisville, and Tennessee twice and Missouri in the SEC. Kentucky only plays Florida once this season, Halloween night in Lexington.

Kentucky goes to Texas A&M on Sunday.

“I don’t want to say it’s a different Kentucky team than we’ve had in the past, but we’re going to be able to compete with anybody because we’re very skilled,” Skinner said. “We are very efficient and we serve and pass as well as anybody.

“There are other teams that might be more physical than us, but we’re playing the game and our IQ of the game is a strength of ours this year.”

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