It was no secret that No. 20 Florida (20-6, 14-2) would need a herculean effort to knock off the defending national champions, the No. 8 Kentucky Wildcats (22-4, 15-1), in Lexington, Kentucky, this weekend.
With head coach Mary Wise’s 1,000th career win hanging in the balance, the Gators needed to be able to keep up with Kentucky’s offensive firepower.
Fourteen kills from redshirt senior T’ara Ceasar and five more from senior Thayer Hall ultimately proved not to be enough to earn a fourth set, let alone a match victory.
Despite remaining competitive in each set, Florida failed to close out any of the three sets against Kentucky, as the team fell victim to a Commonwealth State sweep on Friday, 22-25, 22-25, 20-25.
The Gators kept pace with the ‘Cats in the early stages of the first set, even securing two of the first three points, but the following 8-2 run pushed Kentucky’s lead to five. The 9-4 score forced a timeout from Wise, and her team responded with back-to-back points out of the stoppage.
Florida finally clawed within one point of Kentucky but disaster nearly struck for the Gators when Ceasar rolled her ankle after colliding with Kentucky sophomore Reagan Rutherford at the net line. Ceasar exited the game but quickly returned as her team vied to complete the comeback.
Florida never fell out of striking distance of Kentucky, but the hosting Wildcats maintained an arm’s length advantage over the Gators the whole set. The high-powered Kentucky scoring partly came from junior Azhani Tealer and sophomore Madi Skinner, who both finished set one with five kills.
Freshman Emma Grome served on set point for the Wildcats at 24-17, but Wise’s team was not quite finished; a four-point run forced a timeout from Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner. Sophomore Eli McKissock scored an ace in the first point out of the timeout, but an error from Ceasar gave the Wildcats their 25th and final point of the set.
The late momentum shift seemed like a positive sign for Florida, but the second set began much like the first did; each point was tightly contested, but Kentucky still held the lead by a handful of points. The Gators finally secured a tie at 10-10, but a 3-1 Kentucky run handed the lead right back to the Wildcats. Senior Allie Stumler took over for Kentucky in the second set, registering eight kills. The inability to secure the next point after reaching a tie persisted for Florida — 13-13 tie. Next point, Kentucky. 14-14 tie. Next point, Kentucky. 15-15 tie. Next point, Kentucky.
The Wildcats finally broke free, rattling off four straight points to push the score to 19-15. Wise called a timeout at 22-17, but seniors Thayer Hall and Marlie Monserez passionately spoke to the team. The words may have been too little too late, however, as the Wildcats arrived at set point, 24-19.
Just as the first set, the Gators found early points in desperation, firing up a 3-0 lead. A Kentucky timeout ensued, and a quick point for the Wildcats eliminated the chance of a comeback. After sweeping their last three matches, the Gators stood on the brink of finding themselves on the receiving end of a sweep in Lexington.
Needing a set win to extend the match, Florida reversed the script from the first two sets and furthered the early lead, climbing up to a XX-XX lead.
Kentucky tied the set at 11-11, though, and the Wildcats proceeded to fire off a 6-1 run to force a Gators timeout. A 5-2 run after the timeout made the score 21-15, as the curtains began to close for Florida in the first match of the trip. Kentucky brought the set to match point at 24-16, but the Gators once again found some fuel left in the tank to stave off defeat.
Florida fired off four points at match point, but a final kill from Stumler iced the match, 25-20. For the first time since Sept. 11 against Baylor, Florida had been swept.
The Gators return Saturday for the second match against Kentucky of the weekend, and the final match of the season. Wise remains in search of her 1,000th career win.
Carson Cashion is a third-year sports journalism major at UF, and the sports editor at The Alligator for the 2022 summer semester. A native of Altamonte Springs, Carson spends his free time walking his dog, Baxter, and listening to good music. He is an avid Tennessee sports fan, and eagerly awaits watching one of his teams win a championship for the first time.