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Friday, May 24, 2024

Over the past 20 years, Florida has been accustomed to facing the defending Southeastern Conference champion only during intra-squad practices.

For the first time in as many years, the No. 2 Gators will face a defending SEC Champion without at least their own share of the title when they take on No. 16 LSU tonight at 7 in the O’Connell Center.

LSU (13-0, 4-0) is off to its best start in school history despite losing four starters from last season’s championship squad.

“LSU is the team that won the league last year and, credit their staff and their program, in that they did graduate some fantastic players, but they have just reloaded,” coach Mary Wise said. “They are a hard-nosed, gritty group of players that really plays hard. Our team has great respect for LSU and their program.”

The Gators (10-1, 3-0 SEC) are 30-13 all-time against the Tigers. From 1992 through 2008, the Gators won 26 consecutive matches against their conference opponent. The series ceased being one-sided last year when the Tigers won 3-0 (28-26, 25-20, 25-22) and 3-1 (24-26, 25-23, 25-19, 25-17).

Tonight’s meeting will be a classic matchup of offense versus defense. Florida is the SEC leader in blocks per set (2.82) while LSU is the league's leader in kills per set (14.70), assists per set (13.72) and hitting percentage (.288).

“It won’t just be blocking it’ll be defense overall—whether from the serve, the block, the dig, the transition to the offense,” Wise said. “LSU’s offense is at the top of the league. If they were a basketball team you would talk about what a great fast-break team they are.

“They just really come at you with lots of different looks. It’s a very fast offense.”

The Gators will be playing their ninth ranked opponent in only 12 matches so far this season—more than any other team in the country. Despite the greater opportunity for defeat, the Gators feel that there are more pros than cons when it comes to having such a tough schedule.

“I think we’ve had a couple big wins that have helped build up confidence,” senior middle blocker Lauren Bledsoe said. “Continuing to play really good teams makes us play our 'A' game a lot of the time. We realize that we don’t have much opportunity to slip and play bad or else we will get beat.”

Bledsoe leads the Gators with 1.17 blocks per set—good enough for fourth in the SEC. Junior middle blocker Cassandra Anderson follows at fifth in the SEC with 1.12.

After dropping both matches to the Tigers last year, Bledsoe says that the team realized just how good the SEC had gotten as the Gators finished in third place. She said her number one focus for tonight has been blocking and that the team has been working in practice on what to do for each hitter.

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“You can’t underestimate any team,” Bledsoe said. “A lot of teams are coming to play their best volleyball and they’re looking for a win just like we are.”

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