As Rachael Kramer lightly hit the ball over the net and away from the outstretched arms of a diving Stanford player, Florida's volleyball team exploded with excitement.
Its players screamed at the top of their lungs, raised their fists in the air and swarmed an ecstatic Kramer, forming a sea of white and blue uniforms in the middle of the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
It took just five seconds for the Gators to feel a joy they haven't felt since 2003, the last time they appeared in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.
No. 2 Florida took down No. 3 Stanford in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night, clinching its spot in the national championship match behind a nail-biting 3-2 (25-22, 25-21, 18-25, 18-25, 15-10) victory over the Cardinal.
Senior middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan led the way for the Gators with 17 kills and four blocks, while senior outside hitter Carli Snyder notched 16 kills and two blocks. Senior libero Caroline Knop also registered 20 digs.
The Gators will now face No. 5 Nebraska on Saturday night at 9 for a chance to win their first NCAA title in program history. Florida’s only other appearance in the national championship match came in 2003 when it lost to USC, 3-1.
“You’re all dreaming for that one shot to be playing in that last match,” said coach Mary Wise, who was named AVCA National Coach of the Year on Thursday. “And we get a chance.”
Early in the Thursday night’s contest against Stanford, the Gators found their rhythm in the form of service aces and strong offensive showings from their middle blockers.
Florida notched five aces in the first two sets, including two each from Snyder and redshirt junior setter Allie Monserez.
Middle blockers Kramer and Alhassan totaled 11 kills in the opening frames, contributing to a Florida offense that got off to a strong start.
However, momentum shifted out of UF’s favor at the start of the third set.
The Cardinal took an early lead in the frame, capitalizing on multiple attack errors that helped it go on a six-point run.
Stanford further cemented its lead with multiple kills from redshirt senior Merete Lutz, the Cardinal’s opposite attacker who scored a match-high 19 kills.
The fourth set started off just as poorly for Florida with four of Stanford’s first six points coming off unforced errors.
The Gators hit rock bottom when the Cardinal reached a nine-point lead, 11-2, midway through the frame.
Despite the deficit, Florida was able to bring itself back into the set following multiple attack errors from Stanford and a series of kills from Alhassan.
But that wasn’t strong enough for the Gators to regain control of the match, forcing them to go to a decisive fifth set with the Cardinal.
The final frame was a testing point for Florida.
Only three of its previous matches this season had gone to five sets, with UF finding a way to win each time.
The senior leadership from Alhassan, Snyder and Joseph was pivotal to defeating defending national champion Stanford.
Together, the trio combined for seven kills and only one attack error in the 15-point set.
“To be great leaders, you have to have people willing to follow,” Wise said. “The freshmen, sophomores and juniors have been outstanding letting them lead and being willing to follow.”
A match of ups and downs ended on a high with the kill from Kramer that secured Florida’s advancement to Saturday’s championship match.
The Gators will now have one day to prepare for their second matchup against the Cornhuskers in 2017.
Florida previously faced Nebraska at the O’Connell Center on Aug. 26 and won the contest 3-2. However, Cornhuskers setter Kelly Hunter was unavailable for the contest, something Wise said played a big role in the outcome.
“(Hunter) makes them go,” she said. “It’s going to be a different match than it was the first time.”