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Saturday, April 13, 2024

For the last week, the Gators have had to hold it in.

But it didn’t take long for them to finally let it out.

“Right now, it’s all about Penn State,” senior Elyse Cusack said after Florida’s second-round match.

No. 14 UF (25-5) did its part in advancing to the inevitable Sweet 16 matchup against the No. 1 Nittany Lions (34-0) with a sweep of shorthanded FIU 3-0 (25-22, 25-15, 25-16) in the O’Connell Center on Friday.

Penn State also swept its way through the first two rounds to punch its ticket to a date with UF on Friday at 6 p.m.

The Gators clinched their spot in the showdown in large part because of their 12 blocks. They racked up 11 more than FIU (32-4), which is the largest blocking margin of the season for UF.

“We know that the teams that have had any success against FIU blocked balls,” coach Mary Wise said. “When we didn’t block balls early on, we were a little concerned.”

After recording only two blocks in the first set, the Gators exploded with 10 in the final two sets.

Sophomore middle blocker Cassandra Anderson led the effort with four and a half blocks along with nine kills.

Four UF players, including Anderson, finished with at least one block.

“The longer the match went on, we adjusted more,” Anderson said. “We saw where they were hitting, and the more the match went on that just helped us figure out where we needed to put the block.”

In UF’s first-round match, Wise said her team did not play with enough intensity, but that wasn’t a problem Friday.

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“We knew coming in against FIU with their feisty little setter, that they play with such emotion, and we had to match that,” Cusack said. “If we didn’t and we played flat, they were going to take advantage of it.”

An emotional 7-0 run by the Gators to grab the second set along with an injury that kept FIU’s best hitter, senior Yarimar Rosa, out for the third frame broke the back of the Golden Panthers.

Rosa attempted to play despite the injury but could not finish the match. The senior was in tears for much of the final set as an injured left shin kept her on the sideline.

“No matter how much you tell the team that they can do it, they know what she means to the team,” FIU coach Danijela Tomic said. “Seeing her on the bench crying is not easy to overcome.”

Wise knew the Gators’ win must be put in perspective.

“I know deep down there is an asterisk, and that is Rosa,” Wise said. “If she is 100 percent healthy, she is one of the most dynamic outside hitters.”

But in the end UF won its 25th match of the year for an NCAA-best 19th straight season. Cusack finished just four digs short of becoming the SEC’s all-time career digs leader.

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