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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

After falling two games behind the Southeastern Conference lead, Florida knew it had to win all of its remaining matches to get back in the race.

But the Gators have done even better - they have won every set in their last four matches.

Following losses by Kentucky and LSU earlier in the week, No. 10 UF (16-3, 10-2 Southeastern Conference) now controls its own destiny in the race for a 19th consecutive conference championship after it swept Ole Miss (8-14, 2-10 SEC) on Sunday 3-0 (25-18, 25-13, 25-16) to extend its set streak to 12.

After trailing 8-9 in the first set, UF grabbed the momentum thanks to a 12-3 run to eventually win the opening frame.

The Gators wasted no time in beating the Rebels this time around after being pushed to five sets by them earlier in the season.

"No question we are playing better in the second half of the season than we were the last time we played Ole Miss, and that's the whole game plan - to continue to get better," coach Mary Wise said.

In the first matchup against Ole Miss, UF was outblocked and committed 14 service errors to only one ace, but Sunday it not only won the blocking battle 9-2, it also dropped in five aces.

The serving game was terrific all weekend, as the Gators were able to pile up a season-high eight service aces in a win against Arkansas (11-12, 5-7 SEC) on Friday 3-0 (25-12, 25-18, 25-16).

"It definitely feels really good for us to serve at home," junior setter Brynja Rodgers said. "A lot of us take a few steps back behind the baseline, and at some gyms you don't have that - in the O'Connell Center we have as much space as we want."

Rodgers played a big part in the team's successful serving performance, as she tallied up five service aces on her own during the weekend.

Although setter Kelly Murphy only had seven kills against Arkansas, the sophomore responded with a match-high 14 kills against Ole Miss on Sunday.

"A lot of it is matchups, and when Kelly was swinging today, we felt like she had a good matchup in terms of the defense Ole Miss was running against her, so it was part of the game plan," Wise said.

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On Friday, senior libero Elyse Cusack became the first player in school history to eclipse the 1,900 digs mark and moved into third on the all-time SEC digs list.

"Elyse has been the glue to this team and has anchored the serve-receive while working with young players around her," Wise said. "She is the heart and soul of this team, and it shows every day when she goes in to practice."

Now in a three-way tie with LSU and Tennessee for second place in the conference, UF is just one game behind Kentucky with matchups against all of those teams still remaining later in the season.

"It helps motivate us a lot just knowing that we are in back in it now," Murphy said. "Everything just means so much more because we do have a chance. It's up to us now."

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