UK faces top seed in NCAA tourney

Junior Whitney Billings (1) spikes the ball during the UK women's volleyball game v. Ohio University during the second round of the NCAA tournament in Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, December 1, 2012. Photo by Genevieve Adams | Staff

By Nick Gray | @KYKernelGray

No. 16 seed UK volleyball (22-10, 14-6 SEC) travels to the West Lafayette, Ind., campus of Purdue University on Friday to battle No. 1 seed Penn State (31-2, 19-1 Big Ten) in the Regional Semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

The Cats reached the Regional Semifinals for the second consecutive year after wins over East Tennessee State and Ohio State. UK volleyball has not achieved such a feat since the 1987 and 1988 seasons.

But to advance further, the Cats will need an extraordinary effort both defensively and offensively. Penn State limits its opponents to 10.57 kills per set while hitting .127, leading the Big Ten in both categories. The 2010 National Champion has also swept its opponent in eight out of the last nine matches and has not lost a match since.

The Cats will face a balanced and explosive attack on the Nittany Lions’ frontline. Four Penn State players average more than two kills per set and average 14.36 kills per set as a team. Junior Ariel Scott leads the Nittany Lions with 3.64 kills per set while junior Deja McClendon is not far behind with 3.25 kills per set. Junior Katie Slay is seventh in the nation in hitting percentage at .430. UK coach Craig Skinner senses the difficult task of limiting the Penn State attack.

“The thing that we need to think about is we have to play Penn State once. We have to put ourselves in a position to win one match,” Skinner said. “They’re obviously a good team. They’re ranked where they are because they’ve had a lot of success. Are there things they’re going to do well against us? No question. I’ve always thought as a coach, whether this is who I’ve worked for or whatever it is, you can’t prepare for a great defense. You can prepare for a great offense, but a great defense is hard to prepare for.”

UK hosted the Regional Semifinals last season, falling to No. 1-seeded Texas in a four-set win for the Longhorns. Senior setter Christine Hartmann said the experience of last year will help on Friday.

“The big thing about the situation that we’re going into is it’s one that we’ve already been in before playing Texas as first seed last year,” Hartmann said. “We’ve been here before; we know how to handle it. We are just as excited this time around as we were last time and I know the team is as well.”

The winner will face the Minnesota (26-7, 15-5 Big Ten) versus host Purdue (23-10, 12-8 Big Ten) winner Saturday at 4 p.m. on ESPNU in Mackey Arena, with a ticket to the Final Four in Louisville at stake. Those teams played once in Minnesota during Big Ten conference play, with the Gophers earning the win 3-1.