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Thursday, February 22, 2024

A third option at middle blocker has officially emerged.

Freshman Cassandra Anderson played her best game to date in contributing to the No. 9 Gators' 3-0 (25-22, 25-12, 25-22) defeat of Tennessee.

"She was a sparkplug for our team," senior Kelsey Bowers said. "She came in and got some big-time blocks that we needed out there, and she was a big presence."

That's exactly what the team asks of her when Bowers and junior Kristina Johnson are unable to fully contribute at middle blocker due to injuries.

UF coach Mary Wise hopes she can help the team by providing steady relief.

"We took the freshman label off of her," Wise said. "We told her she's no longer a freshman, you've been here for six weeks."

Anderson responded by converting four of her seven attacks and recording three solo blocks to go along with one block assist.

The Volunteers gave the Gators (14-1, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) two tough sets though, despite the lift from Anderson.

In the first and third sets, Tennessee (10-8, 4-4 SEC) logged higher hitting percentages than UF and finished the match with 1.5 more total blocks.

Wise characterized the Volunteers as a "great defensive team" that is able to return many balls that would go for kills in other matches.

As a result, the Gators were forced to work harder for their points, often coming at the end of a long rally.

The gritty defensive effort showed up in the stat sheet as Tennessee finished with a 40-30 lead in digs.

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"One of our goals was to try and out-dig a great digging team and obviously we didn't do that," Wise said. "What we put together in terms of the blocking, the serving and the offense, that was the key to allow us to win."

UF made a statement by closing out the match in three sets, showing progress from their Friday night affair with No. 25 Kentucky.

The Gators jumped out to a 2-0 lead in front of the home crowd but allowed the Wildcats to climb back into the match and force a fifth and decisive set.

Ultimately, UF would hold on, but a lesson was learned in the victory.

After Sunday's game, Wise conceded that closing out the match was discussed in the locker room during the intermission.

"We were excited and confident that we could win in three, and we did," Anderson said.

"Once we got on a run, we just kept on pushing and never let up."

Freshman setter Kelly Murphy played her way to a seventh consecutive double-double, this one coming on 12 kills and 15 assists.

Wise said she felt Murphy took her game to another level by calling for the ball and showing how badly she wanted to be set.

The first-year players are continuing to improve in all areas, and their coach complimented them on wanting to get better every day.

Anderson's performance showed that the team is starting to turn the corner in its development.

"The blocking is the last thing to come around for young players," Wise said.

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