A year later, they haven’t forgotten the game that got away.
The Gators only needed two points to secure a second-round sweep of Florida State when everything changed. Down 2-0, FSU won the final three sets and knocked Florida out of the 2016 NCAA Tournament in Gainesville, 3-2, in a stunning upset.
“We don’t want to feel like that ever again,” sophomore Rachael Kramer said.
Tonight, a UF team returning 16 of the 18 players who suited up for that match is ready to end this season on a better note, and they’re using that loss as motivation.
Florida (25-1) has it first chance to redeem last year’s early tournament exit tonight at 7 against Alabama State (28-10) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The match will be aired on the SEC Network +.
The O’Connell Center hosts two matches in the tournament’s opening weekend. Miami (21-5) plays College of Charleston (27-5) today at 4:30 p.m., followed by the Gators’ match against the Lady Hornets. The winner of the two contests will play Friday at 7 p.m.
It’s the second consecutive year Florida has opened the NCAA Tournament against Alabama State. In the 2016 meeting, the Gators left the court with a lopsided 3-0 victory, highlighted by 14 kills and four service aces from senior Carli Snyder.
Florida coach Mary Wise doesn’t expect the Lady Hornets to roll over in this matchup, though.
“This Alabama State team, which returns all but one of their starters, looks so much different than a year ago,” Wise said. “They’re more experienced. I think this is one of the better first round matchups we’ve had in awhile.”
Both teams enter the match with strong defenses and having recently won conference championships. The Gators (17-1 SEC) now share the SEC title with Kentucky while Alabama State finished 18-0 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Florida and the Lady Hornets are second and eighth in the country, respectively, in opponent’s hitting percentage, a measure of how efficiently opposing teams score points.
“We definitely need to bring the heat from different parts of the court,” Kramer said.
Wise is also wary of Alabama State’s offense, saying its greatest threat to the Gators is its ability to score from all sides of the court.
“They’re very dynamic,” she said. “We’re going to need to be seamless in our defense.”
But Florida believes that its defense, along with senior leadership and a tough nonconference schedule, has prepared itself for any team it faces in the postseason.
“We ride and die by our seniors,” Kramer said.
Three of those seniors — Snyder, Rhamat Alhassan and Shainah Joseph — will be squaring off against Alabama State for the third time tonight.
The trio played against last season and in 2014, where they combined for 21 kills as underclassmen.
Wise said that the team will also rely heavily on its seniors’ experience.
“They know how hard you have to work to try and play your best volleyball,” she said. “You hope that playing your best is good enough to advance, but the margin of error is razor thin. We will rely on the seniors to help the younger players understand that.”
The Gators beat four ranked opponents before diving into conference play, including wins against then-No. 1 Texas and then-No. 5 Nebraska.
Kramer said that playing a strong nonconference schedule is good preparation for the postseason.
“It helps to play those opponents that aren’t in our conference,” Kramer said. “It’s very important to play teams that we’ll see later down the road.”
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Florida believes that its defense, along with senior leadership and a tough nonconference schedule, has prepared itself for any team it faces in the postseason. “We ride and die by our seniors,” UF middle blocker Rachael Kramer said.