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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Gators complete comeback in Arkansas

T’ara Ceasar recorded 23 kills in the second of a two-game series against the Razorbacks

Florida outside hitter T'ara Ceasar competes during an Oct. 16 game against Texas A&M.
Florida outside hitter T'ara Ceasar competes during an Oct. 16 game against Texas A&M.

Florida’s five-match win streak appeared on the brink of dissolving. Then, just in time, senior T’ara Ceasar took over the match late in the fourth set. 

The outside hitter earned the kill that gave Florida the lead and then served the final two points of the set that gave Florida the win, doing what she had done all night.

Ceasar carried the weight of the team and delivered when it counted, finishing with 23 kills and a .346 hitting percentage as the Gators rallied to defeat the Arkansas Razorbacks in five sets, 3-2 Saturday in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The win marked the 996th win of head coach Mary Wise’s career.

Florida opened the night with a 2-0 lead in set one, courtesy of two errant swings from the Razorbacks, but the Gators wouldn’t hold the lead for long. Arkansas climbed out to a 10-6 lead, and Florida struggled to fight back to even the set. The Gators pulled within two at one point, trailing 12-10, but Arkansas scored five straight points on the strength of three Florida errors to quickly put the Razorbacks in the driver's seat. 

Wise responded with two timeouts in a seven-point stretch, trying to establish some normalcy and rhythm from a team that swept the Razorbacks Friday. Arkansas pushed the lead to 24-14 but failed to close out the set after an error. A service error from Florida’s Thayer Hall immediately followed, and the Gators dropped set one 25-16. The Gators’ hitting percentage of just .176 seemed unrecognizable after their Friday dominance, when they won three-straight sets with little resistance.

Despite its first-set struggles, Florida roared out of the gates in the second set with the passion of a team wanting to assert its dominance and jumped out to an 11-4 lead to force an Arkansas timeout. The stoppage did little to sway momentum though, as Florida marched onward to a 15-6 lead. 

The Razorbacks found life, though, breaking a 8-2 scoring run to trim the Gators lead to just four. A Hall and Ceasar scoring barrage would get Florida within set point, and middle blocker Lauren Dooley laid down the final that sealed the second set win, 25-17.

Both teams exchanged points to open the third set, creating an early 5-5 tie . Arkansas sophomore Taylor Head took over serving duties for Arkansas, and the Razorbacks found a 10-6 lead behind her service run. 

The home team continued to pile on the Gators, forcing Wise to take another timeout when Arkansas extended its lead to 18-10. The Gators garnered a 4-0 run at match point, but it was too little, too late as the team fell 25-18. A decisive fourth set that could send the Gators home awaited. 

Florida did not enter the fourth set with the type of energy a team trailing 2-1 should display, and it translated into the scoreboard. The Razorbacks hit double digits first, leading 10-6, but Florida responded with a three-point run. Ceasar did her best to keep the Gators alive, securing a kill to take a 13-12 lead. Florida pushed forward to a 17-14 lead before Arkansas head coach Jason Watson called a timeout, looking for a final burst from his team. The Gators kept climbing to a 20-14 lead, but allowed Arkansas back into the set with three straight points including a rotation violation.

Florida earned one kill, but another trio of Razorbacks points shrunk the Gators lead to just one point as the set neared its end. In a 21-21 tie, Florida was called for a lift, putting the Gators behind with time running out. Ceasar responded, though, registering two kills to put Florida back on top. With Ceasar serving, the Gators registered back-to-back blocks to secure the set victory and book their ticket to a winner-take-all set five.

After three lopsided sets to open the match, the fifth matched the fourth’s competitiveness. Both teams traded blows to start the set, and as the set reached the halfway mark, the sides were locked in an 11-11 draw, and then a 12-12 tie, and then a 13-13 tie. Finally, Arkansas suffered an attack error to hand Florida match point. Arkansas responded with a kill to stay alive, but kills from Ceasar and freshman Merritt Beason iced the match. 

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After a sweep against the Razorbacks, the Gators return to Gainesville Wednesday to take on the Auburn Tigers. 

Contact Carson Cashion at ccashion@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter at @carsoncashion.

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