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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Before departing for California, UF coach Mary Wise said her team's back-to-back matches this weekend would provide a challenge similar to what the Gators will face in the NCAA Tournament.

If that's the case, it seems the Gators will be in good shape come December.

No. 5 Florida won the Community Bankers Classic by defeating Pacific 3-1 (25-14, 20-25, 25-19, 25-21) Saturday night in Stockton, Calif.

UF (5-0) reached the championship match against Pacific (4-1) after beating No. 11 Stanford 3-2 (25-20, 15-25, 16-25, 27-25, 15-9) in a five-set thriller Friday night.

The Cardinal (3-2) knocked the Gators out of the NCAA Tournament last year, but the Gators proved to be resilient enough to outlast their opponent this year despite terrible performances in the second and third sets, in which they hit .094 and .000, respectively.

After Saturday's match, Wise was pleased with her team's overall performance in the tournament - particularly its ability to repeatedly bounce back - but still saw room for improvement.

"These were two back-to-back, grind-it-out matches in this tournament that exposed weaknesses in areas where we can get better," Wise said.

The Gators dominated the Tigers in the first set Saturday, putting up a .500 hitting percentage while their opponent recorded an equal number of kills and hitting errors.

But the teams split the next two sets, and Florida took a 2-1 advantage into the fourth frame, hoping to avoid a third-straight five-set match. That seemed like a strong possibility throughout the set, but with the teams tied at 20, the Gators scored three straight and eventually closed out the match with a kill by Colleen Ward.

Ward was Florida's leader in kills in both matches, putting up 15 against the Tigers and 16 against the Cardinal.

Although Ward was impressive at the net all weekend, senior libero Elyse Cusack was named MVP of the tournament. Cusack recorded a match-high 16 digs Saturday, giving her 1,713 for her career and moving her into the top five for career digs in Southeastern Conference history.

"She really understands the game well, and that's where a lot of her digs come from," associate head coach Nick Cheronis said. "Generally speaking, we draw up defensive schemes to get the ball to Elyse because we know she'll be able to read it and dig them."

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After posting her seventh career triple-double Friday against Stanford, sophomore setter Kelly Murphy put up another double-double Saturday with 10 kills and 24 assists. She added a career-high six blocks.

Murphy, Ward, sophomore outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel and junior opposite hitter Lauren Bledsoe all recorded double-digit kills in both matches.

A radio broadcast contributed to this report.

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