Fending off another rally from the South Carolina Gamecocks, the cement-like defense of Florida was rewarded as senior outside hitter Marina Markova elevated above the net to spike the game-winning kill on the road.
No.12 Florida (10-2, 2-0 SEC) spoiled South Carolina’s Southeastern Conference opener (6-5, 0-1 SEC) three sets to one (25-18, 25-22, 16-25, 25-19) Saturday on the road at the Carolina Volleyball Center in Columbia, South Carolina.
To start the day, the unranked Gamecocks went up firing early in set one as the Gators contributed two attack errors to the South Carolina lead. With the unusually bad start to the set, head coach Mary Wise called her first timeout.
Coming out of the stoppage, UF responded back with a kill by senior outside hitter Marina Markova.
After going back and forth with two kills each, UF began to rally. With a five point streak of their own behind two kills from junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria, the Gators caught up to tie the game seven. This resulted in Gamecocks head coach Tom Mendoza calling a timeout to regain his team's composure.
Even with a pause in a play, Mendoza struggled to find answers to the middles of UF’s defense. The Gators extended their lead to 17-11 with a six point run.
Despite fighting back late, the Gamecocks would never recover their early set one lead as two straight kills by sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason gave UF the set, 25-18.
Repeating her actions, Beason started set two with a spiking kill for Florida to jump out to an early 3-0 lead.
As South Carolina fixed its attacking mistakes, the Gamecocks appeared to be evenly matched with the nationally ranked Gators. A kill by junior outside hitter Riley Whiteside and a service ace by junior middle blocker Ellie Ruprich made it a one point deficit at 6-5.
However, Florida would break away with Beason and Victoria in the front row. The duo combined for five kills, giving the Gators a 15-11 going into the first break in the second set action. With four Gators recording five or more kills already in the match, UF continued to attack the Gamecocks up front with freshman setter Alexis Stucky assisting on every kill after the break.
However, South Carolina stayed in the battle after kills by Whiteside and sophomore middle blocker Oby Anadi created uncertainty for Wise as she called a timeout up 18-16.
Still staying close, punch for punch, a Beason error late in the set brought it back within a point for the Gamecocks. UF led 22-21 as Wise took another timeout.
Immediately back onto the court, a Whiteside kill tied the game 22-22. However, this tie would be short lived for South Carolina as the Gators went on a three-point rally which was capped off with a Beason ace to take set two 25-22.
Sticking to the same storyline of the previous set, the third frame continued a fierce matchup as both teams tied four times to start.
Then for the first time since the first set, South Carolina took the lead off of three straight Gators attack errors. After a fourth attack error by UF sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley, Wise saw enough as she called her team to the side, down 9-5.
Flipping the script, the Gamecocks matched Florida point-by-point, as the Gamecocks went with their new momentum to tack on another streak of points. After an attack error by senior outside hitter McKenzie Moorman, Florida was given a break as it broke a four point streak to lead 15-8.
With hitting percentages drawing closer to even, South Carolina took its biggest lead of 10 after another streak of three points to answer Moorman’s attack error. With a 18-8 lead over the Gators, the Gamecocks sprinted to the finish.
After finishing two sets with a .475 hitting percentage, Florida dropped to .368 as South Carolina took the third set 25-16 to stay alive. It was just the third set loss for Florida over its last seven matches.
Going into the fourth set, the Gamecock went back to work with two straight kills by Moorman to lead 3-0 early.
Fortunately for the Gators, attack errors from SC brought Florida back into contention. After four points via attack errors and a Victoria kill, UF took a 6-5 lead to climb back into the lead after what appeared to be a moment of Gamecock dominance carried through set three.
A seven point rally extended Florida’s lead 9-5, and mistakes at the net began to plague UF as South Carolina went on a streak of its own with four straight points. The Gamecock regained the lead, 11-10, after back to back kills by Whiteside. Florida would respond with three straight kills to regain the lead once again but the set would continue to match the intensity of a ping pong match.
Fending off against any more South Carolina runs, the Gators defense closed their court walls and never allowed the Gamecocks an opportunity to match a point with another. UF started to build steam near the end of the set. Florida rode off of the solidified defense to close off the match with a Markova spike to win set four 25-19.
The Gators will stay in Columbia to finish their doubleheader against the Gamecocks Sunday at 2 p.m. The match will stream on SEC Network +.
Brandon Hernandez is a student at the University of Florida studying journalism. He is a writer for The Alligator, Gator Country and for PlugTalkSports. You can find most of his work on his Twitter (BranH2001) and on his podcast, “The Courtside Podcast,” on Spotify.