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Friday, March 31, 2023

Kentucky edges out Florida in first regular-season loss at home since 2004

As Kristy Jaeckel's attack hit the O'Connell Center floor just beyond the in-bounds line, every player on the Florida volleyball team faced an outcome they had never been a part of: a regular-season loss at home.

Despite being dominated in the first set, No. 15 Kentucky (14-1, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) handed No. 5 UF its first regular-season defeat in Gainesville since 2004, edging out the Gators 3-2 (9-25, 25-19, 23-25, 25-20, 15-11) on Friday night.

"The difference in the match was the 19 balls we hit out of bounds," UF coach Mary Wise said. "If you hit 19 balls out of bounds, you don't deserve to win.

"We're not good enough to make as many unforced errors as we do."

Sophomore setter Kelly Murphy turned in her third triple-double of the season with 20 kills, 27 assists and 14 digs. Perhaps most impressively, she committed only six attack errors on 33 swings for a .424 hitting percentage.

After putting the Gators ahead 10-9, UF's rotation neutralized Murphy's devastating hitting ability, as she had to move to the back row and count on her teammates to put points on the board while she distributed the ball.

"It's a little bit of a relief when she is setting, but she's just a great player regardless," Kentucky coach Craig Skinner said. "She's a great setter, so she's able to get hitters one-on-one when they need it and make the right choices. When she's in the front row, she's just a terminal hitter. There are very few players like that in the country."

Murphy and the Gators absolutely dominated the first set, dismantling the Wildcats 25-9. Sophomore middle blocker Cassandra Anderson racked up two solo blocks and a block assist, junior setter Brynja Rodgers added seven assists and UF committed just one attack error while hitting an impressive .520.

Florida's performance in the second frame was a far cry from its dominance in the first, as the Gators committed 13 errors - four each by sophomore outside hitters Jaeckel and Colleen Ward - and were outblocked six to two.

"We might have thought we had it too easy in Game 1," Murphy said. "When they started coming back at us harder, we just didn't go back even harder than they were coming. We just didn't respond."

Florida will only have one day to recover from the loss, as they will host Tennessee (10-4, 3-1 SEC) in the O'Connell Center on Sunday.

Friday's loss could be enough take the Gators out of the driver's seat in the race for their 19th straight conference championship, so there will be little room for error throughout the rest of the year.

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"Right now, we're all upset," senior libero Elyse Cusack said. "A loss sucks, but it's how you respond. The SEC is a long season, and it's how we respond to it."

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