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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

On this weekend's road trip, UF took two steps forward in a sweep of Tennessee and one giant step backward in a five-set thriller with Kentucky.

The No. 12 Gators (21-3, 15-2 Southeastern Conference) headed into Lexington, Ky., on Sunday with a chance to take a commanding three-match conference lead with three to play.

Instead, the No. 22 Wildcats (25-4, 16-2 SEC) handed them their second conference loss 3-2 (25-23, 14-25, 20-25, 25-20, 15-6) and moved into a tie for the conference lead.

For 17 straight seasons, UF coach Mary Wise has hung an SEC Championship banner over the Lemerand Center practice courts. After fewer than two hours in Memorial Coliseum, that streak is now in serious jeopardy for the first time all season.

Despite her team's inability to pass this year's greatest test, Wise did not get down on her players and seemed pleased with the overall progression.

"To come in and take Kentucky to five after beating UT on Friday speaks volumes about where our team is at right now," she said.

The Wildcats came into the match leading the conference in blocks per game, but recorded only as many (eight) as the Gators.

Senior middle blocker Kelsey Bowers led UF with five blocks while adding 10 kills and eight digs.

Wise said Bowers has returned to full strength after injuring her back this summer, and it has shown in her play.

Bowers is the leader of UF's middle blockers, a unit that showed tremendous improvement against the SEC's top-two teams in blocks per game.

The improved play of the middles helped the Gators take a 2-1 lead before the Wildcats forced another five-set match between the two teams.

UF hung with Kentucky early in Set 5 and cut the lead to 5-4 after some sloppy play by the Wildcats.

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From there, Kentucky went on a 10-2 run behind Becky Pavan to close out the match.

Pavan finished with a match-high 14 kills on a .481 hitting percentage.

UF sophomore opposite hitter Lauren Bledsoe provided the best offensive performance for the Gators, logging 11 kills on a .476 hitting percentage in addition to tying her career high in digs with seven.

Fresh off a dominating performance against the Volunteers, freshman Kelly Murphy came up one assist shy of a second consecutive triple-double but struggled to record kills consistently.

Fellow freshman Colleen Ward totaled just seven kills on a team-high 36 swings and posted a negative hitting percentage.

Despite the disappointing loss, Wise remained positive about her team's effort on the tough road trip.

"Both teams played very well, and I couldn't have been more proud of the way our players played this weekend," she said.

A radio broadcast contributed to this report.

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