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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

During Florida's recent blocking drought, senior libero Elyse Cusack wrote a quote on the whiteboard before practice that the team will play by for the rest of the season.

"Offense wins games, but defense wins championships."

If No. 6 UF (12-2, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) has plans of winning its 19th consecutive SEC title, it will have to continue its recent high level of defensive play.

After failing to outblock an opponent in the first 10 matches of the season, the Gators have now done so in three out of their last four matches. They will look to keep it up as they travel to Baton Rouge, La., to take on LSU (11-4, 5-1 SEC) at 7 p.m. on Sunday in a match televised on ESPNU.

"In practice, we have been doing so much blocking, and players have been going in early and getting in extra reps," Cusack said. "I think the extra attention we've been putting into blocking is finally paying off in the matches."

In the last couple of seasons, blocking has been a key statistic for UF. The team is undefeated in its last 20 regular-season matches when it outblocks an opponent, dating back to 2008.

Sophomore middle blocker Cassandra Anderson has led the charge for the Gators, as she has averaged 1.23 blocks per set this season. She had 10 block assists in the team's win Wednesday against South Carolina.

But she wasn't the only one who thrived on the defensive end that night. Sophomore setter Kelly Murphy finished the match with 17 digs, while Cusack racked up 18.

"We always say there are two stats that really scream effort," UF coach Mary Wise said. "One is block assists, the other is digs."

Though the outside hitters are not known for their defense, even they are getting in on the action. In their last four matches, Kristy Jaeckel, Colleen Ward and Callie Rivers have combined to dig up an average of 18.25 balls per match.

Jaeckel has quietly improved her defensive play this season. After averaging just 1.17 digs per match last year, she has the second highest dig average this season after raising that number to 2.23 per set.

But the leading force behind the team's improved defensive effort has been Cusack, a player who takes pride in her defense and leads the team in digs.

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"I think that, especially for me - defense being my position, great teams are great defenders," Cusack said. "That's blocking and digging balls, and if you do that, you are going to beat your opponent."

Despite the abrupt defensive turnaround, Wise does not believe UF has reached its full defensive potential yet.

"There have been some years that I can say, 'This is as good as we are going to get,' and that's just not the case this season, not with as many sophomores as we play," Wise said. "I really like the potential of this team."

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