Oct. 22, 2009

Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

LEXINGTON, Ky. - There's something magical about Memorial Coliseum and it has nothing to do with the Kentucky basketball teams of old. For the second straight season, the University of Tennessee volleyball team (15-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) walked out of Lexington with an impressive victory, downing the No. 7-ranked Wildcats (19-2, 9-1) in four sets, 25-23, 23-25, 25-23, 25-22, in front of 2,291 fans and national television audience on ESPNU Wednesday evening.

The win marks the highest-rated opponent Tennessee has defeated since it took out No. 2 Penn State in State College, Pa., on Dec. 9, 2005, to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.

"This was just an awesome volleyball match and great win for our program," UT Head Coach Rob Patrick said. "What a great match for the SEC to be on ESPNU as fans all across the nation got to see the high level of play in our conference. I am ecstatic for our team. Our players really deserved this victory. Their practice habits have been very consistent for the last month and it is starting to translate into better play in our matches.

"We have been struggling in the service part of our game and I am very excited to see our servers be aggressive, yet keep their errors down," Patrick said. "Our serve-and-pass game really stepped up big and helped offset Kentucky's terrific offense. Another key to the match was that our outside hitters only made 11 errors on 139 attacks, which is just great to see, especially when we have a freshman and a first-year starter taking so many of those swings."

Junior Nikki Fowler posted her most impressive performance of the season, blasting out 20 kills and collecting 17 digs for her fourth consecutive double-double and 25th of her career. The Dallas, Texas, native also had four blocks, two assists and an ace in the victory.

Senior Chloe Goldman paced the squad defensively with 23 digs, while sophomore Kayla Jeter hit at an impressive .325 clip with 14 kills and just one error on 40 swings. Junior Leah Hinkey topped the squad in the blocking with six putbacks.

"To be able to hold Kentucky to a .184 hitting percentage is almost unheard of with the offensive weapons that they possess," Patrick said. "There are a lot of people on our team that stepped up huge in this match. As she has done all season, Nikki Fowler simply filled up the stat sheet. Kayla Jeter continues to play a high-level, low-error offensive game and Chloe was Chloe, digging up everything in sight and making big plays to slow down Kentucky whenever it had a chance to build momentum."

Paced by four kills each from Fowler and Jeter, the Big Orange got off to an impressive start, emerging victorious in the opening frame, 25-23. The Lady Vols wasted no time racing out to an early lead, claiming five of the first six points of the contest. Jeter and Hinkey kicked off the festivities by stuffing a right-side attack by Lauren Rapp and senior Kylie Marshall followed with a blast down the right line. After a cross-court putaway by Jeter, the Wildcats finally got on the scoreboard on a kill by Rapp. Tennessee continued to be the aggressor, taking advantage of a UK attack error and getting a kill by Hinkey off an overpass to take a 5-1 advantage.

The Big Orange continued to hold off Kentucky until the scoreboard read 10-5 in its favor. At that point, however, the Wildcats found their rhythm and scored five straight to knot it up at 10-all. The Lady Vols were undeterred though, taking the lead right back and going ahead by five with a 7-2 run. A ball-handling error by UK's Becky Pavan opened the spree and UT followed with a back-row blast by Fowler and a sharp block by senior Farren Powe and Marshall that went straight back into the attacker, Blaire Hiler.

Although UK got two of the scores back, Tennessee responded with four of its own, highlighted by an ace by sophomore Kelsey Mahoney and a kill by Marshall, to stake claim to a 17-12 advantage. Once again, Kentucky answered right back, moving within a single score with four consecutive points. The two squads would trade the next six points to put the tally on the scoreboard at 20-19 in favor of the Orange and White.

Back-to-back kills by Fowler from the right side forced UK Head Coach Craig Skinner to burn his second timeout of the frame. It did little to halt UT's momentum though as kills by Powe and Fowler, sandwiched around a Wildcat block, gave the Big Orange four chances at set point. It was a good thing too, because the Lady Vols would need each and every one of them as Kentucky tallied three points in a row to put the score at 24-23 before Cikra finished off the frame with a cross-court shot from the right side.

In the second frame, Kentucky was able to escape with a 25-23 triumph of its own to knot things up at one set each as the two teams headed to their respective locker rooms. With the score deadlocked at 11-11, the Orange and White struck the first blow as consecutive kills by Fowler and Cikra and a UK attack error gave it a three-point lead.

After a Rapp putaway, UT continued to extend its advantage with back-to-back blasts from the back row by Marshall and Fowler. Up by four, that would be Tennessee's largest lead of the set as the Wildcats scored five straight shortly thereafter to go up 21-19. Although Tennessee was able to cut its deficit to just one on two different occasions, a laser by Rapp from the back row ended the set with Kentucky up by two.

Yet another battled ensued in the third set with Tennessee holding off a furious rally by Kentucky late in the frame to pick up a 25-23 triumph. Defense was the key this time around, as Fowler picked up nine digs in the set and the Lady Vols held the Wildcats to a miniscule .090 attack average and forced a total of 13 unforced errors.

UK came out of the locker room on fire, jumping out to a 3-1 lead with three straight scores after a Mahoney ace. Although the Wildcats pumped their lead up to five at 11-6, the Big Orange did not back down, tying it up with a 5-0 run featuring two kills from Jeter and one each from Marshall and Fowler, as well as a Kentucky attack error. After trading the next three scores, Tennessee took advantage of two more UK miscues and a kill by Mahoney on a heads up play as she dumped the ball to the middle of the court to take its first lead of the frame at 15-13.

Kentucky kept fighting though, immediately grabbing the lead back with four consecutive scores. Once again, the Big Orange had an answer with a 6-1 spree that put it up by three at 21-18. The first three points came on a block by Fowler and Powe, sandwiched between two more UK attack errors. Following a kill by Hiler, the Orange and White added three more, with Fowler notching her second kill of the frame and back-to-back Wildcat miscues.

Although the Big Blue rallied back into the lead with four more scores, Tennessee finished strong, claiming four of the final five points for the victory. Cikra got the ball rolling in UT's favor when she dropped the hammer down the right-side line. Jeter then split the Wildcats' back-row defenders for a kill on the next play before Hiler knocked out one of her own to move the score to back to a deadlock at 23-all. A service error on the next play gave the ball back to the Big Orange and it took full advantage with Mahoney dumping another one to the middle of the court to finish off the frame.

Tennessee was able to carry over its momentum into the next frame, racing out to an 8-3 lead behind the strength of a 7-0 run. After Kentucky jumped ahead 3-1, the Orange and White began to fire on all cylinders. Jeter opened the spree by jumping over the right-side block and slamming one straight down for an impressive kill. Fowler then followed with back-to-back putaways, blasting one wide off the block and punching one to the back-right corner. She then joined forces with Hinkey to stuff a Sarah Mendoza attack before tallying yet another kill to force Skinner to call a timeout to steady his troops.

The tactic did not work as intended though, with Gretchen Giesler hitting a cross-court shot wide left and Jeter recording an ace to put UT up 8-3. Like they had done all match though, the Wildcats clawed their way back into the set, eventually taking a 15-14 lead on a kill by Rapp. The two teams proceeded to put on a show, trading jabs like a pair of prize fighters until the scoreboard read 21-20 in favor of the Orange and White.

From that point on, it was all Nikki Fowler. She simply took over the match, scoring Tennessee's final four points to give her team the victory. Her first kill of the spree was an absolute blast from the outside that bounced in front of the UK libero. After Mendoza answered with a kill of her own, Fowler knocked two in a row off the Wildcat block to send the contest to match point. Although she looked to have ended the match on the following play, the ball was called out to give Kentucky a glimmer of hope. Fowler quickly dashed those dreams, however, sending one down the right-side line to end the match.

The Lady Vols will now return to Knoxville where they will host No. 20 LSU at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 26 in Thompson-Boling Arena. From there, Tennessee will hit the road once again, traveling to Ole Miss and Arkansas. UT will take on the Rebels at 7 p.m. CT in Oxford, Miss., on Friday, Oct. 30 before venturing to Fayetteville, Ark., for a 1:30 p.m. CT matchup with the Razorbacks two days later.