Missouri’s Kylie Deberg hit a rocket straight toward Florida’s Thayer Hall. She fell forward to her knees and reached down in a desperate stretch to save the point. She cradled the ball under her hands to keep it alive. However, the ball flailed backward toward the large orange Gators lettering behind the court.
Libero Elli McKissock darted, dove blindly and sent the ball over her right shoulder to keep the rally alive. Hall then volleyed the ball over the net and prepared for another Tigers’ attack.
They called Deberg’s number once more, but Florida’s Lauren Dooley and Holly Carlton soared above the net as their arms formed a fortress-like wall to record the block.
McKissock's efforts were critical in the Gators’ sweep over Missouri. Coach Mary Wise and her team will need more hustle if they hope to knock off No. 3 Kentucky Friday and Saturday in the O’Connell Center.
The matches this weekend are critical for both teams as they battle for the SEC Regular Season Championship with two weeks remaining. If No. 7 Florida hoists the SEC trophy at the end of the season, it becomes its 25th SEC Championship.
The Wildcats will be a tough out, however. They stand undefeated and rank first in the conference in every category except digs and blocks. Nationally, Kentucky boasts the best average hitting percentage (.363). It’s also stout defensively as it allows opponents to hit .138, good enough for 22nd in the country.
Kentucky setter Madison Lilley plays like Chris Paul on the basketball court. She averages 12 assists a set, which sits second best in the nation. Opposite Azhani Tealer and outside hitter Avery Skinner compare to Paul’s former teammates Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. They connect often as they average a .457 and .366 hitting percentage, respectively.
Wise believes Lilley is one of the best setters the SEC has ever seen that has allowed the Wildcats to play at an elite level.
Florida holds the upper hand when it swats swings at the net. It averaged almost three blocks a set, strong enough for ninth in the country. But the Wildcats lurk within a paw’s reach of Florida’s block average. They block 2.6 per set.
Middle blocker Lauren Dooley sends back the most attacks of any Gator with 1.6 per set. Her strong defensive performance the last couple of weeks have earned her SEC Defensive Player of the Week for three consecutive weeks. The Gators defense is also stiff like Kentucky and allows .155 hitting percentage.
Hall and outside hitter T’ara Ceasar lead the team in kills per set with 3.64 and 4.11.
Florida and the Wildcats have only met two times prior when they shared a top-10 ranking attached to their names. Both matches occurred in 2017, and the teams split each meeting.
Wise also approaches the verge of cracking the NCAA top-10, all-time wins list. If she earns two victories this weekend, she’ll need two wins to tie for 10th.
The Gators also ride high into this weekend’s matches. They have an 11-match winning streak that traces back into the fall season.
“We made some changes in terms of some of the things we were doing offensively, the just the, the time put in,” Wise said about the difference in the winning streak. “And the focus on details that the players have embraced I think it's part of the evolution of this team's growth.”
Friday’s match starts at 1 p.m. and will stream on SEC Network+.
Contact Zachary Huber at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber