Lamb turns in huge performance in critical contest for UK volleyball

Published 4:30 pm Thursday, October 26, 2023

Not every college athlete has the patience/loyalty that Kentucky volleyball junior Erin Lamb of Stewartville, Minn., a top 30 recruit coming out of high school, has in the transfer portal age.

She had six matches with 10 or more kills in 2022, including 11 in a sweep of Florida. She finished the season with 2.67 kills per set. She started eight of 23 matches she played in.

However, the arrival of Oklahoma transfer Megan Wilson, along with the superb play of freshman Brooklyn DeLeye, has resulted in reduced playing time for Lamb, who has started just matches and played in only 10 of UK’s 17 matches.

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But when Kentucky desperately needed a spark Sunday against No. 10 Arkansas, Lamb delivered.

She had four kills on six swings in the fifth set after barely playing earlier in the match to help No. 20 Kentucky pull out the five-set win over Arkansas. It was the first conference loss for Arkansas, which had won 16 straight matches, and UK’s seventh straight SEC win after getting swept at home by Tennessee on Sept. 24. Kentucky now shares the SEC lead with Arkansas at 8-1.

What prompted UK coach Craig Skinner to turn to Lamb with the match — and perhaps the season — on the line against Arkansas.

“I have seen Erin in practice tear it up all the time,” Skinner said. “I am proud some kids did not just pack in it (when she’s not playing). In practice, she’s a handful all the time.

“We needed a little bit of a spark. Megan had it going early. Erin would not have been given the opportunity unless she was doing it in practice. I just felt like she could change the momentum for us,” Skinner said.

It seemed only fitting that Lamb finished the game with her fourth kill to give UK (10-7) its second win over a top-10 team in the last week. The Cats had lost to top 10 foes Pittsburgh (twice), Nebraska and Louisville this season.

Kentucky had bounced back after losing the first set 25-16 to wins set two and three against Arkansas before the Razorbacks dominated set four. Skinner never worried that his team would falter in the final set.

“Obviously I am super proud of the way we responded,” he said, noting it was the way the team had responded to early adversity by choosing to go to work rather than packing it in. “I am proud of the resilience of our team not to give up and feel sorry for ourselves (this season). It’s a life lesson. Lots of things in life do not go the way you want. Do you get after it or blame someone else?”

Skinner’s team never lost hope or belief.

Sophomore defensive specialist Audrey Whitworth of Breckinridge County also played a huge role in the win over Arkansas. She was the first Kentucky player not from Louisville, Lexington or northern Kentucky that Skinner had signed.

She had a career-high 18 digs, three assists and two aces against Arkansas and also brought a calming influence when she was on the court. Starting libero Eleanor Beavin had 30 digs, but Skinner noted Whitworth only played about half the time Beavin does.

“That’s a big night for a defensive specialist. She’s our best or second-best server on our team. She’s calm and even if she doesn’t feel like she’s playing well, it’s better than she thinks. Hers is at a higher level,” Skinner said.

Kentucky’s play is like that now at a much higher level than it was early in the season. Skinner feels more comfortable with his rotation, senior Reagan Rutherford is back after missing six games with an injury and the players have learned to relax.

There were plenty of smiles and a lot of laughs during the tensest moments of the win over Arkansas.

“It makes us stay loose,” Beavin, a junior from Louisville, said. “We have noticed if we are tense and tight we do not play as well. It’s like we get too calculated. When we are playing loose, we play our best volleyball and just rely on our training.

“I think our team prides itself on being loose and not getting tight even in the fifth set.”

That’s the message Skinner has been preaching.

“I told them today it is not what you did but what you do now,” Skinner said.

Kentucky has six matches remaining, starting with Friday night’s match at LSU on the SEC Network. That’s the first of four straight-away matches before the Cats close the season with home contests against Texas A&M and Missouri.