Missouri volleyball’s margin of error proved to be razor thin.

Coming into its Southeastern Conference opener Sunday afternoon against preseason-favorite Kentucky, MU thought it had learned plenty of lessons from its solid nonconference campaign.

The Tigers added a few more reminders to their to-do list after the Wildcats used their experience to narrowly edge Missouri in three straight sets.

No. 16 Kentucky took down No. 19 MU 29-27, 25-23, 25-21 in front of a crowd of over 2,000 people Sunday afternoon at the Hearnes Center.

The loss is the Tigers third straight, all coming against teams ranked in the top 16 in the country. Their next chance to get back in the win column comes with a road test on Wednesday against LSU. The victory is the Wildcats 28th straight conference win.

“I think our errors were more mental than anything else,” Missouri setter Andrea Fuentes said. “Maybe (Kentucky has) a little bit more experience with that mental aspect of the game, besides that, I think we're just as good as them.”

The epitome of Missouri’s performance can be narrowed to one play. Although several others were impactful, none quite stuck out like one moment featuring Kylie Deberg at the end of the first set.

After controlling the match throughout the opening set, the Tigers (8-3 overall, 0-1 SEC) had trouble putting Kentucky away. MU had a total of five set points in the first set, all of which the Wildcats pushed overcame.

The fifth proved to be the most divisive — as the rally ended with Deberg spiking down the would-be set ender over a Wildcat middle hitter at the center of the net.

The officials immediately blew the play over, awarded a point to Kentucky and told Missouri interim head coach Joshua Taylor that the ball hadn’t crossed the neutral part of the net, and it was in a spot where the Tigers weren’t allowed to touch it.

Taylor said it was the only call of the match he didn’t agree with. However, that play was the last time MU secured a set point in the match.

Those events led to the only lead change in the first set and the Wildcats completing the early-game comeback.

“They made the wrong call, but it happens and it happens in every sport,” Deberg said. “So, we got to learn how to bounce back from that and not dwell on mistakes. We just have to learn to use our emotions for the better of us and not let them get to us.”

Missouri’s self-disdain piled up throughout the game as unforced errors came from a few key facets of its game. They just appeared more obvious after the first set.

“It was a big momentum killer and what's frustrating for me is it shouldn't be,” Taylor said. “Our tendency right now is when things don't go our way, we’re not as tough as we need to be, to be effective as a team.

“So, when that happened, Kentucky saw an opportunity to take over emotionally and they did.”

The Wildcats (9-4, 2-0) led for a majority of the second set and put the Tigers away under a lot of similar circumstances as they did in the first set with MU’s mental lapses.

Missouri led for a while in the third set until Kentucky made the game-ending run. The Wildcats won 12 of the game’s last 16 points to head back to Lexington with a crucial road victory.

“I think it was a combination of trying to do too much and be perfect and when you do that, you start making errors,” Taylor said of his team’s performance. “And when you give a team like Kentucky free points, especially towards the end of the set, it doesn't matter if they’re down or they're ahead, they're going to beat you.”

Missouri finished the match with a hitting percentage of .187 — a far cry from the distinguished mark the team put up a few weeks ago of over .500.

Even with the Missouri’s struggles against Kentucky, Taylor and the rest of the Tigers know they have 17 conference matches still to go to fix those mistakes.

BLUE RIBBONS

During the match against Kentucky, every Missouri volleyball player wore a blue ribbon in honor of Shelby Meyer, the Columbia College volleyball player who passed away last week.

Taylor added that it was his players idea to wear the ribbons and they bought the ribbons themselves. The Tigers also held a moment of silence for Meyer before the match began.

eblum@columbiatribune.com

(573) 815-1811