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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

In the span of a season, one of Florida's oldest volleyball rivalries has changed from a traditionally lopsided affair into a battle for conference supremacy.

Entering last season, UF held a 37-0 record against Kentucky under coach Mary Wise. The Wildcats got their first victory against the Gators in 18 years with a 3-2 decision in Lexington and came within two matches of winning the regular-season Southeastern Conference title.

In the end, Florida won its 18th straight conference championship by defeating South Carolina, and Kentucky lost any title hopes in a loss to Tennessee.

So far this year, the No. 15 Wildcats (13-1, 3-0 SEC) have proven they can remain a contender in the championship run, having not dropped a set in conference play and sweeping an Ole Miss team that took the Gators to five sets.

No. 5 Florida (10-1, 4-0 SEC) will take on Kentucky in a top-15 showdown tonight in the O'Connell Center. UF will then host Tennessee (9-4, 2-1 SEC) on Sunday to round out what Wise has called the toughest two-match weekend of the season.

Even during her time serving as an assistant at UK from 1986-90, Wise said she knew the Wildcats could hold their own against tougher competition, so their recent improvement hasn't come as a shock to her.

"It's not surprising, as good as they are. It's one of the highest-octane offenses in the country," Wise said. "They could easily be undefeated right now. This is a regional championship-quality team we're playing Friday night.

"This is Kentucky's year. I think the only surprising thing for us is that they're not ranked even higher."

UK's only loss was in a five-set road match against in-state rival Louisville on Sept. 16.

The Wildcats are led by senior setter Sarah Rumely, the reigning SEC Player of the Year. Rumely's 11.86 assists per set put her first in the conference and seventh in the nation, and Wise attributed part of UK's success to her leadership.

As a team, Kentucky leads the SEC in hitting percentage, assists and kills per set and ranks in the nation's top 10 in each category.

The Gators have cruised to victory in their last three matches, giving every eligible player time on the court at one point, but sophomore setter Kelly Murphy said this weekend will be comparable to UF's early season matches against Stanford and Washington, two ranked opponents.

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Florida split the two matches, taking down then-No. 11 Stanford in five matches and getting swept by No. 3 Washington.

"Our [nonconference] season helped us prepare for this with some tough competition," Murphy said. "I think we've gotten a lot better with our consistency, so this is just another big test for us."

With the Florida football team on a bye, Wise said she hopes Gators fans will turn their attention just across the street from The Swamp this weekend.

"We'd like to think that Friday and Sunday, the happening place is in the O'Connell Center," Wise said.

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