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Friday, January 27, 2023

KeLeigh Hudson kissed the Southeastern Conference sign she held in her hands.

Coach Becky Burleigh threw her arms into the air.

Shelley Lyle's 26-member entourage of family and friends chanted her name.

After a disappointing start to the conference season, UF's aspirations of an SEC championship seemed doubtful.

But the Gators managed to turn their season around, and with Sunday's 3-0 shutout of Vanderbilt after Friday night's 2-0 win against South Carolina, UF (13-4-2, 9-2 SEC) clinched its second consecutive SEC title.

The Gators now enter the SEC Tournament on Wednesday ranked as the No. 1 seed.

A season that was marked by adversity and frustration became a season of vindication.

"I think this one's really special because of the circumstances in which we won it," Burleigh said. "In terms of losing the first two games and having to battle back each week and being able to keep the faith that we would still have the chance to win it."

The Gators opened the conference season with losses to Georgia and Tennessee, opponents who would spend the entire season atop the SEC standings.

Ironically, it was the Bulldogs' 3-0 victory against the Volunteers Friday night that gave the Gators the opportunity to claim the conference title. UF entered Sunday's match with 24 points (a tally of wins and ties) in conference play and trailed Tennessee and Georgia by one and two points, respectively.

A loss would have resulted in the Gators missing their first preseason goal: the SEC title.

UF appeared to be jittery early on following an emotional pregame ceremony for the team's eight seniors.

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The Gators were scoreless off six shots in the opening half, but forward Ashlee Elliott broke through in the 66th minute off an assist by Lauren Hyde.

Elliott's score deflated the Commodores and gave UF a jolt after a scoreless first half.

"Normally when you get the first goal, more and more come," Elliott said. "With this team, it's really obvious. Sometimes we do have a little bit of trouble, but this is a game we knew we wanted to win. It's Senior Day, it's everyone's last game and this was basically everyone's SEC championship."

Midfielder Ameera Abdullah helped continue the momentum, scoring in the box on a goal assisted by forwards Stacy Bishop and Megan Kerns.

Bishop rounded out the scoring on a free kick in the 74th minute after Vanderbilt defender Audrey Nonemaker drew a yellow card.

This weekend's victories extended UF's winning streak to nine games, its longest in the regular-season since 2000.

For the seniors who at one point felt a conference title was out of their reach, UF's current play is the most fun they've ever experienced.

"Early on we didn't seem to enjoy ourselves, and now we're enjoying ourselves," Bishop said. "It makes a world of difference."

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