Heads were hung and breaths were heavy as the Gators trailed Long Beach State 11-7 late in a pivotal fifth set.
It was the difference between sweeping the Honda of Gainesville Gators Invitational and an ugly loss to an underdog Beach squad that lost to Texas State a week and a half ago.
Coach Mary Wise called a timeout to settle her team down.
UF came out of the timeout and scored 12 of the next 18 points, including five in a row coming out of the timeout. Florida also needed to fight off four match points before claiming victory.
The epic win (25-27, 25-16, 25-20, 19-25, 19-17) capped off a successful weekend for Florida after being swept by two top-10 opponents last week. The Gators (5-2) will face No. 25 Florida State at home on Tuesday.
“It’s not easy to come back in a 15-point set,” Wise said.
Florida had to play without senior middle blocker Rachael Kramer, who is sidelined with an unknown injury, for the second-consecutive match. She was seen standing with her teammates and wearing her warmup uniform during the match.
In her place, redshirt junior Darrielle King and sophomore Lauren Dooley stepped up to the challenge. King converted on 15 of her 19 swings, while Dooley added another 14 kills on 23 chances. The duo combined for six kills in the fifth set alone.
“It’s like a basketball team; if your top three point scorers aren’t shooting the ball well, then you better play lights out defense and find some other points,” Wise said. “We got the ball in the paint and our middles delivered.”
Dooley said, “At first, it was very nerve-wracking, but I knew I had to go out and score for the team and do my best effort to help the team this weekend, so it felt great.”
UF struggled immensely on the defensive side of the game in the first set without Kramer’s presence. The Beach (3-6) hit a superb .471 as a team, and the Gators couldn’t keep up despite a hitting percentage of .421.
A back-and-forth set, where the largest lead was just three points, resulted in Long Beach State having set point with a two-point lead. The Gators rallied back to tie the game at 24. They even managed to take the lead, thanks to an Allie Gregory dig that defied all logic by floating over the net and nestling itself just barely inbounds.
However, that was the last point UF scored in the frame, as it gave up the next three points to drop the set 27-25.
Florida’s defense improved significantly over the next two sets, holding the Beach to hitting percentages of .029 and .167, respectively. LBSU also committed 17 attack errors in that span.
The Gators outscored the Beach 50-36 and looked poised to roll to a third-straight win.
However, that was not the case on Saturday.
The two teams played a close fourth set until about halfway through the frame. The Beach went on an 8-2 run for an 18-10 lead, essentially icing the frame for LBSU and setting the stage for the heart-stopping fifth set.
“I’m so proud of our young middles, first time they’ve been in this situation,” Wise said. “To respond the way they did, Lauren Dooley, never started, just smashed her career (numbers in) every way.”
Follow Brendan Farrell on Twitter @Bfarrell727. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.