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Thursday, March 30, 2023

With UF sitting all alone atop the Southeastern Conference standings, it would be bold to suggest the No. 12 Gators have a tough time matching up with anything the conference throws at them.

Tonight, UF (20-2, 14-1 SEC) plays the first game of its weekend road trip against Tennessee (19-8, 12-4 SEC) before heading to Kentucky, where UF coach Mary Wise expects her team to be at a disadvantage in one crucial area.

The Wildcats (23-4, 14-2 SEC) lead the conference in blocks per game (2.83) and have proven to be a better defensive team at the net than the Gators.

"We don't match up well with them," Wise said.

When UF took on Kentucky at home on Oct. 10, the Gators were out-blocked seven to five and nearly blew a two-set lead before finishing off the Wildcats in five.

"There was a huge gap between what we were able to do and what they were doing," Wise said. "Our goal is just to keep Kentucky from getting on that point-scoring roll."

UF has been able to dominate lesser competition by being bigger, faster and stronger than its SEC foes, but junior libero Elyse Cusack and sophomore defensive specialist Erin Fleming both pointed out Kentucky as the one team in the league that plays as physically as the Gators.

Before practice and a long trip to Knoxville on Thursday, UF's middle blockers seemed confident in their game plan and ready to prove their coach wrong.

"I take that as a challenge," freshman Cassandra Anderson said. "I believe that we will out-play their middles."

Senior Kelsey Bowers also said the quote serves as motivation but believes her team hasn't played at the level it is capable of.

"I know that we have a lot of potential and we haven't lived up to how many blocks per game we can get," she said.

The Gators have the opportunity to all but clinch the conference title with two wins this weekend - a victory against the Wildcats would put them three matches up with three matches to play and UF would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

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But first, UF needs to get past a Tennessee team that comes into Friday's match riding the conference's longest win streak.

The Volunteers have not suffered a loss since the Gators swept them in the O'Connell Center a month ago.

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