Two hours, seventeen minutes and a grueling five sets later, the Gators got the win.
It was Sept. 24, and Arkansas was just the second team to make it to a fifth and final set against Florida — then-No. 5 Nebraska did so in UF’s second match of the season — but like the Cornhuskers, the Razorbacks fell short when it mattered most.
Redshirt senior Pilar Victoria’s 30 kills weren’t enough to pull off the upset, but the Puerto Rico native definitely made an impression on Florida coach Mary Wise.
“(Victoria) had quite the special performance the first time we played them, and she hasn’t done anything to slow down,” Wise said.
Victoria will lead the Razorbacks (17-8, 7-6 SEC) into battle against the No. 4 Gators (20-1, 12-1 SEC) tonight at 7.
In its first home match since Oct. 27, Florida will try to contain an Arkansas offense that had the Gators on their heels for much of their September SEC opener. The Razorbacks come into tonight’s match with one of the SEC’s best offenses, ranking third in the conference in hitting percentage, second in assists and third in kills.
Victoria leads the nation by a wide margin in both total kills and points, but will be facing an elite Florida defense led by middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan. The 6-foot-4 senior leads the SEC in blocks and has been voted SEC Defensive Player of the Week each of the past three weeks.
Redshirt senior Shainah Joseph said that slowing down Arkansas’ offense will come down to Florida playing smart and blocking well. The Gators’ 3.16 blocks per set is the third best rate in the country.
“We are one of the most physical blocking teams in the SEC, so (Victoria) has not played against a lot of blocking teams like us,” Joseph said. “If we take away (Victoria’s) primary shot, our defense will be able to pick up her second shots.”
While much of the game plan involves trying to keep Victoria in check, Wise is also wary of Arkansas’ supporting cast.
“All that’s happened since we played Arkansas is that their younger players have gotten more experience,” she said.
Indeed, a pair of freshmen in Hailey Dirrigl and Elizabeth Pamphile have been major contributors for the Razorbacks. Each collected seven kills and three blocks in the two SEC foes’ previous meeting.
For the season, they are second and third, respectively, in kills for Arkansas. Dirrigl and Pamphile are also making their mark on the defensive side of the ball, where Dirrigl’s 272 digs rank second on the team and Pamphile is among Arkansas’ top blockers.
Florida will follow up its rematch with the Razorbacks by celebrating Senior Day against Missouri on Sunday, after which it will close out the regular season by facing Texas A&M, Auburn and Missouri.
The match tonight will be televised on SEC Network +.
You can follow Andrew Huang on Twitter @AndrewJHuang, and contact him at [email protected].