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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Gators prep for difficult Sweet 16 match against Longhorns

When UF takes the court this weekend in the NCAA volleyball regional, the team will take on a role not usually associated with the Gators: underdog.

But if the players have learned anything from this fall sports season, it?s that an upset victory isn?t so hard to pull off.

BThere are a lot of upsets that have been going on lately, whether it?s in football or basketball or volleyball,C senior middle blocker Kisya Killingsworth said. BAnything is possible on any given night.C

The Gators already have one thing going for them œ a home-court advantage.

BIt?s such a special occurrence to play in regional, but even more so to play in it when it?s on your home court,C UF coach Mary Wise said.

Following the opening match pitting No. 5 overall seed Southern California against No. 12 overall seed St. John?s, No. 13 seed UF will take on No. 4 seed Texas on Friday at 7 p.m. in the Gainesville regional.

The winners of the two matches will face each other Saturday at 4 p.m. to decide a berth in the Final Four in Sacramento, Calif., on Dec. 13.

Texas (26-3) will easily be the best team UF (29-2) has faced all season, but the Gators are ready to embrace their underdog persona.

BI think it?s great,C senior opposite hitter Amber McCray said. BThe last time we?ve ever been the underdog I think was my redshirt sophomore year playing Nebraska in the regional finals. We weren?t the underdog any time we played last year or this year.

BI think it?s a great feeling. It?s a whole different mindset because you come in, and you can play loose and just have fun and give it your all, and there?s not as much pressure associated with it.C

The Gators coasted to a Southeastern Conference title and only lost two matches during the regular season, both when ranked higher than their opponent.

Texas has played a much tougher schedule than UF, facing ranked Big 12 Conference opponents such as No. 2 seed Nebraska twice and No. 9 seed Kansas State twice. Texas also squared off with No. 3 seed Penn State on back-to-back days in late August.

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Meanwhile, UF only faced two ranked opponents during the regular season: No. 19 Santa Clara on Sept. 1 and No. 22 LSU on Sep. 23.

UF did play current No. 25 Long Beach State on Nov. 24, but the 49ers were not ranked at the time. UF lost that match in five games.

In order to remain in the tournament, the Gators will have to slow down a Texas team that put five players on the All-Big 12 First Team, including two outside hitters, an opposite hitter, a middle blocker and its setter, Michelle Moriarty. Moriarty was first in the conference with 14.16 assists per game. Their two outside hitters on the team, Destinee Hooker and Juliann Faucette, ranked second and third, respectively, in the Big 12 for kills per game.

UF?s seniors are very proud of the freshmen on the team, who have played above and beyond what the Gators expected at this point in their careers.

Freshmen outside hitters Lauren Bledsoe and Callie Rivers have been stellar, filling in for Marcie Hampton to help lead the Gators to their first two victories.

They will need to play even better to defeat Texas, but Killingsworth has no doubt they will.

BFor freshmen to come in and have such passion, such want and energy, it?s a wow,C she said.

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