When outside hitter T’ara Ceasar sees a ranking next to an opposing team’s name, she shows up on a mission.
The redshirt senior dominated Thursday’s match with 25 kills, a new career-high, five aces and three blocks. The 31.5 points cemented Ceasar’s name in the Florida record books as the most points recorded in a four-set match in program history.
Ceasar’s best offensive matches of the season before Tennessee also came against ranked opponents. Ceasar tallied 19 kills in both the Gators’ win over then-No. 10 Minnesota and a loss to then-No. 17 Baylor.
“It was a special performance by a special player tonight,” head coach Mary Wise said.
Now, in Florida's first action against a ranked opponent since the aforementioned match with the Bears, Ceasar once again played as advertised.
Her performance helped the No. 23 Gators defeat the No. 22 Lady Vols 3-1 (22-25, 25-17, 25-23, 25-16) inside the O'Connell Center Thursday.
Florida middle blocker Lauren Forte served as a spark plug for the Gators in the first set, slamming home three of Florida’s first seven points.
Set one displayed just how evenly matched both teams were. Tennessee clung to a 15-12 lead at the first stoppage of play. The Lady Vols blew open the set with a 6-1 run, forcing Wise to stop the bleeding with a timeout.
Regrouping proved effective. Outside hitter Merritt Beason revitalized the Gators’ attack with two fiery kills. Florida clawed back to within two points, but inevitably, the Gators rally fell short and Tennessee secured set one 25-22.
Set two carried the same tight nature as the first frame. Multiple extended rallys increased the energy as one side desperately wanted to claim control. A momentum shift was well underway as Ceasar delivered back-to-back aces, putting the Gators ahead 11-8.
Florida would soon string together a 6-1 run, highlighted by outside hitter Thayer Hall flying high above the net for an aggressive kill. The Gators maintained a cushion on the scoreboard with Ceasar eventually getting them to set point. An attack error by Lady Vols right side hitter Morgahn Fingall gave Florida the set 25-17, evening the match.
In a match that was already a back and forth affair, set three soared to a different level. The lead changed hands four times before knotting at 22.
The drama continued to build as the Gators thought they secured the point from one of the wildest rallys of the night. However, Tennessee challenged and the call was overturned after Florida used one extra hit to send it over the net to go up 23-22, the set’s fifth lead change.
The Gators flipped the script and won a challenge of their own, then forced an attack error. The Lady Vols needed a timeout and with set point looming the “blue-out” crowd inside the O’Dome got rambuctios. A Ceasar service ace, her fifth of the match, clinched the set for Florida, 25-23.
Hall established the tone of set four quickly. The Gators extended a 4-0 lead behind two kills from the senior. Florida played with reckless abandon, as if a fifth set wasn’t an option.
Wise’s team never trailed on its way to a convincing 25-16 set win, giving the Gators the match 3-1.
Florida finished the match with 63 kills, 18 attack errors and a .417 hitting percentage. In addition to Ceasar’s record-breaking individual performance, Hall recorded a double-double with 10 kills and 12 digs.
Setter Marile Monserez also posted a double-double. The senior paired 48 assists with 17 digs. Monserez’s performance vaulted her up to sixth on the UF all-time assists lists, passing setter Lauren Moscovic (3,306).
“[Marlie] is the heart and the glue of this team. When someone is down, you know you can look to Marlie,” Ceasar said. “When you need someone to touch, if you are a physical touch person, I grab Marlie’s hand.”
The win over Tennessee is the Gators’ fourth straight win. Wise hopes the momentum will continue into their upcoming matches.
“Our goal every year is to play our best volleyball at the end,” Wise said. “All attention will be on what will be a really tough road trip playing against two of the best outside hitters in the league when we go to Arkansas next weekend.”
The two-match series with the Razorbacks is scheduled for Friday Nov. 12 and Saturday Nov. 13.
Contact Joseph Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Josephhenry2424.
Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper.