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Friday, April 19, 2024

Gators look to return to winning ways against Bulldogs

UF lost its last match - and its slim conference lead - to Kentucky on Sunday, but the Gators are far from out of the driver's seat.

With three conference matches remaining, UF is guaranteed at least a share of the Southeastern Conference title if it wins out.

The first step in bringing an 18th consecutive title to Gainesville is downing Mississippi State in the O'Connell Center at 7 tonight.

"The coaches are definitely emphasizing that we control the SEC, it's in our hands," junior libero Elyse Cusack said.

Only the Gators final conference match against South Carolina will be played away from home. They are a perfect 12-0 on the season in the O'Dome.

After dropping its second match of the year to Georgia on Oct. 26, UF had the chance to return home and regain its winning form.

The Gators (21-3, 15-2 SEC) have the same opportunity this weekend with Mississippi State (6-22, 1-16 SEC) and Alabama (15-11, 8-9 SEC) in town, and UF coach Mary Wise is looking for the same turnaround.

"Any combination other than 3-0 doesn't get it done," she said of the remaining schedule.

The team chalked up the loss to the Wildcats as nothing more than facing a tough top-20 team on the road, and Wise credited much of Kentucky's success to the support of its raucous home crowd, which showed up to cheer against the Gators and for a potential share of the SEC crown.

"For years, we've gone up to Lexington, and you could take the entire decade of the '90s and combine that to get the attendance that there was on Sunday," Wise said.

Freshman setter Kelly Murphy said it's good for UF to be playing at home after a loss, because the fan support gives the team a huge boost.

"When you play at home, you know that the fans are on your side," she said. "That's part of the reason that Kentucky played so well last weekend."

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In the two road matches against Mississippi State and Alabama this season, UF handled both teams easily, sweeping the Bulldogs and needing just four sets to defeat the Crimson Tide.

Now, there is much more on the line, and Wise's team will have to handle the pressure of finishing off a successful SEC run.

Though the players were full of one-game-at-a-time clichés before Thursday's practice, Wise has not made talking about the magnitude of the home stretch off limits to her squad.

"It's always good to step back and look at the big picture, and the big picture is that our destiny is in our own hands," she said. "We're not having to sit here and hope that this team wins or this team loses."

Before the season started, Wise set two goals for her team to reach by the end of conference play: win an SEC title and play the best volleyball of the season at the end of the schedule.

A three-game winning streak will accomplish the first objective, and Wise said the team is playing at its highest level right now.

"I don't think there's an aspect of the game that isn't significantly better than when we started in August," she said.

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