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Sunday, April 21, 2024

For her entire 17-year tenure at UF, coach Mary Wise has had her team in a position to win the regular season Southeastern Conference title.

Each year, the Gators (23-3, 17-2 SEC) have finished as the first-place team in the conference and only twice - 1991 (LSU) and 2004 (Tennessee) - did they split that honor.

Today, UF wraps up SEC play at South Carolina (21-8, 12-7 SEC), needing a win to keep that streak alive.

"I don't recall a time when it has come down to the final match," she said. "There has been some years when we've locked it early, and we've had everything to lose and nothing to gain in these matches. This a match where we have a whole lot to gain."

Downing the Gamecocks in Columbia is no easy task, however. The only team that has defeated South Carolina on its home court this season is Kentucky, which is tied with UF for the conference lead.

The Gators crushed the Gamecocks 3-0 (25-22, 25-17, 25-15) when the two teams met in Gainesville over a month ago, and if UF is able to defeat South Carolina for a second time, there will be nothing to do but wait for the results of Kentucky's Friday-night match with third-place Tennessee.

In addition to being a tough home team, the Gamecocks play great defense and turn extra digs into extra offensive attacks.

"They give teams fits because of how good they are in that part of the game," Wise said.

South Carolina is tied for first in the SEC in digs per set and leads the conference in kills and hitting percentage.

Wise said UF must focus on shutting down middle blocker Belita Salters, who is averaging just over three kills per set and hitting .400 on the season, which ranks first among all SEC players.

Last time the Gators faced Salters, they held the dynamic offensive threat to eight kills on a .222 hitting percentage.

As a team, UF outhit South Carolina .381-.186 and even outdug the Gamecocks 42-38.

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The glaring weakness in South Carolina's game has been its blocks, as the Gamecocks rank second to last in the conference in that statistic.

In the first meeting, the Gators had only two of their shots blocked, and freshmen Kelly Murphy and Colleen Ward each broke the 10-kill plateau.

If the match ends up like the first time these teams met, the Gators will be on their way to yet another SEC title.

For the first time under Wise, UF has lost multiple conference matches in the same season.

A third such loss could mark the beginning of a new era in SEC volleyball.

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