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Thursday, March 30, 2023

As the final kill fell on the Gators’ side of the net, so did their dreams of winning a 19th consecutive conference title.

On Friday, No. 10 Florida was defeated by No. 19 LSU for the second time this season 3-1 (24-26, 25-23, 25-19, 25-17).

With just three more conference matches remaining, the Gators (20-4, 14-3 Southeastern Conference) have only a slim chance at the conference championship. The loss put them two and a half matches behind SEC leader Kentucky and one and a half matches behind LSU (22-5, 16-2 SEC).

“That was a really good LSU team, probably one of the best SEC teams I have ever played,” senior libero Elyse Cusack said.

The first set was the only bright spot for UF, as they were able to rally from a 16-10 deficit to eventually win the opening round. But LSU returned the favor in the second frame as they trailed 17-13 but still found a way to pull it out.

“Going into the locker room we joked around how we stole the game one and they stole game two,” Cusack said. “But we went into the locker room tied 1-1, and we just didn’t come out strong enough.”

After the first two sets, it got ugly for the Gators — 16 service errors never allowed them to get any sort of momentum. Cusack attributed the errors to the team’s attempt to keep the LSU offense out of system with aggressive serves.

Senior opposite hitter Marina Skender was a constant force for the Tigers as she racked up 20 kills on 64 attempts while also digging up 15 balls.

“Marina may in fact be the best volleyball player in the league,” UF coach Mary Wise said. “What she does for that team in all aspects of the game is pretty elite.”

Another one of the top players in the conference, UF sophomore setter Kelly Murphy, grabbed her eighth triple-double of the season against the Tigers with 13 kills, 29 assists and 15 digs.

However, much of the talk before the match was about LSU’s senior middle blocker Brittnee Cooper, who dominated the Gators in their first matchup. On Friday, she recorded 16 kills to go along with a .500 hitting efficiency. In the final set, she could not be stopped as she knocked down six of her kills on just as many attempts.

“In the fourth game, she kind of took over,” Murphy said. “I feel like we kind of contained her in the first two games, but after that, she just went off and we had no answer for her.”

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The two losses to the Tigers this season marks the first time the Gators have lost twice to a conference opponent in the regular season under Wise.

“LSU is a really tough matchup for us. What they do well, we have trouble stopping,” Wise said. “I’m just glad we are done playing them.”

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