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Thursday, March 30, 2023

LSU was supposed to be the team that could put an end to UF's dominance of the Southeastern Conference.

With three preseason All-Conference selections, it would appear this could be the year the Tigers could bring down a young Gators squad.

UF coach Mary Wise insisted before the match it would be one of her team's biggest challenges of the season.

But apparently, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The No. 11 Gators' 3-1 (25-12, 25-22, 21-25, 25-19) drubbing of the Tigers (5-4, 0-2 SEC) makes it seem like the rest of the conference is still as far away as ever from knocking off the juggernaut Wise has built in Gainesville.

The win came on the heels of UF's (8-1, 2-0 SEC) Friday-night 3-0 (25-18, 25-16, 25-16) beatdown of eastern conference rival Georgia - a team that the Gators have never lost to.

"We're Florida. We're a really good team. A lot of people are going to try and put a target on our backs," middle blocker Kelsey Bowers said.

Bowers saw extensive action for the first time all season in the Gators' last two games.

Her match-high seven blocks led the way defensively for UF against LSU. But the senior showed that she still has her offensive touch as well, racking up five kills on only eight swings and finishing with a team-high .625 hitting percentage.

"This was the match where Kelsey Bowers returned," Wise said. "(She) was a difference-maker out there."

It was the return to the lineup that Bowers had been itching to make.

"My back is finally starting to feel better," she said. "I feel strong."

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Wise said she hopes that with Bowers back on the court, her team will be able to shore up the blocking that has been a weak point for the Gators this season.

"Ten blocks is good, but I think that we can be so much better," Wise said.

Wise continues to praise the play of junior libero Elyse Cusack.

Her match-high 21 digs and consistent defensive play have helped bring stability to the young team.

But it's not just Cusack who has stepped up defensively for the Gators. Wise pointed out the improvement of freshman setter Cindy Bathelt (eight digs), who is now making an impact after being relied on solely to distribute the ball early in the season.

"We're beginning to pick up balls in the back row that we should be picking up all the time," Wise said.

Offensively, the story of the weekend was the emergence of freshman outside hitter Colleen Ward.

Her career-high 15 kills against LSU and 10 in the win over Georgia have given an already loaded UF arsenal a new weapon.

"Not only can she score points for us, but she can be low-error too," Wise said. "Sometimes you have players that can get you points, but then they give just as many to the other team. Colleen doesn't make those mistakes."

Trying to get the always humble Wise to talk about her run of the SEC - she's won 17 consecutive conference championships - is nearly impossible, but needless to say it appears that the road to the title still runs through Gainesville.

"Two and 0 at home is the right place to start, but it's a long season," Wise said.

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