South Carolina came into Friday night’s matchup against No. 17 Kentucky without dropping an SEC set in a month, sweeping five straight SEC matches.
But the reigning SEC Champion Wildcats (19-6, 12-2 SEC), looking to repeat, flipped the switch at the Carolina Volleyball Center and handed the Gamecocks (16-9, 8-5 SEC) a 25-19, 25-19, 25-13 defeat.
“We were playing well coming into the match,” SC head coach Tom Mendoza said. “Kentucky puts a lot of pressure on us. They put more pressure on our passing than we were hoping. Our passing was a little shaky — shakier than it has been, which has been a strength of ours.”
Right-side hitter Mikayla Shields was the lone Gamecock with double-digit kills, with 12, while middle blocker Claire Edwards, who was second on the team, had six. Setter Courtney Koehler had 25 assists. Defensively, Koehler had eight digs, second only to Addie Bryant’s 10. Shields and middle blocker Mikayla Robinson had two blocks apiece.
The opening set started close.
South Carolina took four of the opening seven points only to see the visitors take the next four, forcing Mendoza into an early timeout at 8-5. Kentucky continued to roll and led by as much as 20-13. The Gamecocks were never able to get it closer than four points.
“When our passing was there early, I thought our offense was running really well,” Mendoza said. “We were creating those seams. Courtney Koehler was doing a good job giving our hitters seams.”
The second set started was the similiar.
The Gamecocks took an early lead, at 5-3, only to see Kentucky storm back and take a lead. Kentucky scored four straight points to force a Gamecock timeout at 11-7.
But this time, the Gamecocks fought back. They were able to tie the set at 15 after winning four straight points, forcing a timeout from the visiting side.
“That was a momentum changer,” Koehler said. “Playing at home is great, but at the same time we have to bring our own energy. We can’t just rely on, ‘Oh we’re at our home court.’ We really have to, and I think we should have done better, at focusing on every little detail, not expecting to win.”
The Wildcats roared back with three straight points of their own forcing a timeout from the home side.
It had little effect.
Kentucky went on a roll, allowing just four Gamecock points the rest of the way winning the second set convincingly, 25-19. The Wildcats came in with the 14th best offense in the country, averaging 14.35 kills per set. It was on full display in the middle frame as Kentucky had 16 kills and hit .600.
“They’re just big. They’re really big,” Bryant said. “They’re really good at changing up their shots, which makes it really hard on blocking and defense. We could have done a better job of both of those things tonight.”
The third set was all Kentucky.
The Wildcats built a 9-4 lead, forcing a timeout from Mendoza. The Gamecock head coach had to call another after Kentucky scored four straight points to take a daunting 13-4 lead. The Gamecocks fought back, cutting the deficit to seven points at 16-9.
But the hole was too big to climb out of.
“I think we just lost our fight, honestly,” Bryant said. “Tom said we looked kind of passive and stopped carrying pride with us in everything that we did.”
It isn’t just the Wildcat offense that is good, but their defense too. They came in allowing opponents to hit just .143, 10th best in the country. The Gamecocks had beat that mark in the first two sets hitting .280 and .296, but hit a measly .062 in the third that made the set significantly one sided.
“They’re big. They’re physical. They’re more in your face,” Koehler said. “They’re more in your face than what we normally see in the SEC.”
The Gamecocks now look to bounce back as they travel to the other Columbia to take on Missouri (17-6, 9-4 SEC) on Sunday at 2 p.m.
“We need to internalize this loss right now and just really focus on what we can do better,” Koehler said. “Then come in tomorrow, tomorrow is a new day, … we have to come in with a positive attitude tomorrow and have the mentality that we’re going to beat Missouri.”