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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Gators open tourney with victory before toughest test of season

TAMPA - Playing against a senior-laden team in front of a hostile crowd Friday night, the Gators displayed a little maturity of their own.

No. 4 Florida (6-0) took down South Florida 3-1 (25-13, 18-25, 25-23, 25-10) in front of the Bulls' home fans in the Sun Dome.

The Gators will look to stay unbeaten in their toughest test of the season so far, a 6 p.m. matchup tonight against No. 3 Washington (7-0) in Tampa.

After UF breezed through the first set, USF (5-1) tied it up while holding Florida to a .132 hitting percentage.

The Gators bounced back in the third set, pulling out a close decision 25-23. Despite a year of experience playing together, Florida is not too far removed from the team that heavily relied on its freshmen last year.

UF coach Mary Wise said the swing from getting outplayed in the second set to escaping with a win in the third was a sign of the team's developing maturity.

"We will look back at this and think of this as one of those matches where our team really grew up," Wise said. "To come in here and win in four, it was a real gut check."

Sophomore outside hitters Kristy Jaeckel and Colleen Ward led the way for the Gators against the Bulls, combining for 29 kills and 21 digs. Wise praised Ward for keeping up with the amount of things she's asked to do on the court, but Jaeckel received the highest praise from her coach for finishing second on the team in kills while recording a .407 hitting percentage.

"This will go down in her young career as one of her best matches, even though the numbers aren't off the charts," Wise said.

Florida kept up its season-long streak of not outblocking an opponent, but the team went block-for-block against USF on the night, recording 11 rejections each. Ward said the Gators accomplished their goal of at least matching their opponent's blocking, and Wise simply called it a "sign of improvement" for her team.

One other area Florida will need to continue improving is its second-set play. The Gators have struggled in the second set lately, dropping the frame in their last three matches.

Senior libero Elyse Cusack, who finished the night with a match-high 17 digs, said her team will have to work on its ability to match the pace it sets out of the gate against Washington tonight.

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"Volleyball is a game of momentum," Cusack said. "It's kind of weird because we'll win the first set outright, and we have the momentum on our side. It's something we've just got to work on: keeping that momentum and using it to our advantage."

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