“Let’s go Gators,” echoed in the O’Connell Center as match point got underway.
Fans stood tall, waving their orange and blue pom poms as the Gators escaped from a third-set deficit. South Carolina setter Claire Wilson lined up to serve the ball, and an intense rally followed. Each team fought to the last second before outside hitter T’ara Ceasar struck down the match-ending kill.
The O’Dome erupted as No. 20 Florida (20-6, 14-2 SEC) swept South Carolina (14-13, 6-11 SEC) for the second time Sunday (25-12, 25-19, 25-20). Just as they had in Saturday’s match, the Gators outplayed the Gamecocks with a .333 hitting percentage and 49 kills, dwarfing South Carolina’s .111 clip and 29 kills.
Prior to the start of the match, each of Florida’s five seniors were honored and presented with their individual framed jerseys for senior day. Ceasar, Thayer Hall, Marlie Monserez, Lauren Forte and Lauren Dooley were joined by their families and escorted onto the court for photos.
“These players have a lot of swings under their belt,” Florida head coach Mary Wise said about this senior class. “When your seniors with that much experience are still trying to get better at the end of November, that bodes well for your program.”
Middle blocker Bre Kelley dished out a kill to begin the opening set, just as she had in Saturday’s match. South Carolina initially clung close to Florida’s lead, but three Forte kills and two slammed down by outside hitter Merritt Beason kept the Gators leading at 8-4.
South Carolina called its first timeout following a Ceasar kill, now 12-6, attempting to thwart Florida’s dominance. The Gators didn’t stop, and a 6-2 run featuring two Monserez kills, and one kill each from Beason and Ceasar kept Florida ahead 18-8 to force a second South Carolina timeout. Nothing could impede the Gators lead, and a Hall ace ended the first set, 25-12.
A kill by Gamecocks’ setter Mallory Dixon got South Carolina on the board first in set two. However, Florida swiftly snatched the lead back at 6-2 after three Beason kills and an ace by libero Elli McKissock.
The Gamecocks dug deep and prospered, scoring four straight points to tie it up at six apiece. A Ceasar kill shut down South Carolina’s hopes for redemption, and Florida kept the ball rolling. Hall and Ceasar mopped the floor with two kills apiece to extend the Gators lead, now up 15-9.
Back-and-forth scoring followed, culminating in set-point. An intense rally lifted fans from their seats cheering on the Gators before Ceasar struck down the set-sealing kill, 25-19.
The third set began evenly matched. Florida once again took the early lead at 7-4, but it didn’t last as it had in the previous two sets. South Carolina finally awoke from its slumber, edging out Florida at 12-11 after a Beason attack error.
The Gators kept evening the set but struggled to reclaim the lead. The Gamecocks captured three consecutive points with another Gators attack error and a kill each from outside hitters Riley Whitesides and Lauren McCutcheon, and South Carolina suddenly led 17-14.
A Florida timeout proved worthwhile, as the Gators tied the set to 19 apiece with back-to-back Ceasar kills. South Carolina followed suit with a timeout to try and reignite its own third-set flow, but two self-inflicted attack errors stood in their way. The Gators recalled their previous sets’ momentum, and Ceasar sealed the sweep with a kill, 25-20.
The team ran around the O’Dome high-fiving fans, celebrating its win in the final home match of the regular season.
“It was really the seniors rallying us together,” Beason said about the team’s third set push. “We were just like ‘Hey, we have nothing to lose so let’s go out here and let’s finish strong.’”
The Gators travel to Lexington next for their biggest matchup of the season against Kentucky, where Wise could claim her 1,000th overall career win.
Contact Kaitlyn Wadulack at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @kwadulack.