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Monday, September 26, 2022

No. 8 Kentucky sweeps No. 20 Florida to become 2021 SEC champions

The Gators end the regular season swept by the Wildcats

Florida volleyball's Merritt Beason (13) and Lauren Forte (24) go up for a block in a game against Texas A&M on Oct. 16.
Florida volleyball's Merritt Beason (13) and Lauren Forte (24) go up for a block in a game against Texas A&M on Oct. 16.

With the SEC Championship out of their hands, No. 20 Florida Gators volleyball looked to upset the No. 8 Kentucky Wildcats while vying for head coach Mary Wise’s 1,000th career win. 

Instead, the Wildcats did what they do best: sweep. 

After Friday’s loss, Florida (20-8, 14-4 SEC) was swept again by Kentucky (24-4, 17-1 SEC) Saturday afternoon (18-25, 20-25, 23-25) in Lexington, Kentucky. 

This was the Wildcats eighth consecutive sweep and most important win of the season, as the team became the sole 2021 Southeastern Conference champions. Kentucky has now won or shared the past five straight championships. 

Outside hitter Sofia Victoria led the Gators with nine kills, most of which landed in the third set of the match. Setter Marlie Monserez recorded 30 assists in the match, along with 11 digs and four kills. Both teams were evenly matched by hitting percentage, with Florida finishing at .224 and Kentucky boasting .289. 

Florida opened the first set with a kill from middle blocker Lauren Forte. The striking start served well for the Gators, as they kept a steady initial lead over the Wildcats. The Gators laid the attacks down heavy, with two more kills from Forte and one each for Monserez and outside hitters T’ara Ceasar and Merritt Beason to build a 9-7 lead. 

A kill by Wildcats opposite Reagan Rutherford shifted Kentucky’s gears, with the match now tied 10 apiece. The Gators retook the lead after a Rutherford attack error, but a four-point scoring run by Kentucky left Florida behind at 15-12. 

The Gators closed the scoring gap to just two after two kills from outside hitter Thayer Hall but quickly slid back to a four-point deficit following a Hall attack error and a kill by Wildcats middle blocker Bella Bell. Florida head coach Mary Wise called her first timeout down 18-14, desperate to relinquish Florida’s early jump and win her first set of the weekend.  

Beason and Ceasar kills bounced the Gators back to just a two-point deficit, but Kentucky was on an unstoppable roll. A kill by Wildcats outside hitter Alli Stumler left the first set in Kentucky’s favor, 25-18. 

It was a tight start to set two. Both teams traded the lead, neither getting more than one point above the other, until Kentucky rattled off a 5-0 run to get ahead at 9-5. Florida was forced to play catch-up but struggled to get kills past Kentucky’s defenders. Beason found some of the Wildcats gaps and slammed down three kills with Florida now down 16-12. 

Florida couldn’t scramble any strong offensive run, and a Bell kill was enough for Wise to call a timeout, trailing 21-15. 

Florida wasn’t getting knocked out easily, though. Four straight points came the Gators’ way after middle blocker Bre Kelley dished out two kills, Victoria shot in a kill of her own and Kentucky recorded an attack error, now 21-19. Two costly Florida attack errors allowed the Wildcats to keep their lead, and a Rutherford kill ended the second set, 25-20 Kentucky. 

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Victoria ignited her own spark in the third set, striking down six kills to get Florida up 7-6. The set continued to tangle further until the Gators pushed forward with three consecutive points after a Beason kill and two Wildcats attack errors, now 13-10. 

Kentucky grasped back at the lead and secured it with a Stumler kill, now up 15-14. The Wildcats kept building up their lead with one kill each from both middle blocker Azhani Tealer and Rutherford before Victoria halted the run with a Florida kill. 

A bad set by Kentucky setter Emma Grome with a Hall kill to follow tied the match back up 17-17, and seesaw scoring began once again. 

The Wildcats jumped ahead by two after a kill by outside hitter Madi Skinner and an ace by Grome, but Florida wasn’t finished. Two Kelley kills and a Kentucky attack error tied the match up yet again at 23 apiece. Stumler edged Kentucky up to match point, and a Forte attack error sealed the 2021 SEC Championship to the Wildcats, 25-23. 

Florida ends the regular season third overall in the SEC. The Gators now await their matchup for the NCAA Tournament, which will air during The Selection Show Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on ESPNU. 

Contact Kaitlyn Wadulack at kwadulack@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter at @kwadulack.

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