For the third time Wednesday evening, the Florida faithful rose to their feet. Match point and a sweep was within reach. Typically in a set or match point situation, the fans chant “yes” for Gator touches and “no” for opposing team hits. Neither would be needed on this night.
A ball handling error by Alabama setter Brooke Slusser on the first touch of the point ended the game for the Crimson Tide.
No. 12 Florida (9-2, 1-0) extended its winning streak to six games and kicked off Southeastern Conference play with a sweep (25-19, 25-19, 25-17) of Alabama (6-7, 0-1) at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The Gators moved to 51-0 all-time against the Crimson Tide, with 47 of those wins coming in straight sets.
UF held Alabama to .152 hitting percentage on the night, while the Gators’ dominant offense put up a .321 efficiency and 36 kills. Sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason led the Gators with nine kills, her first game with less than double-digits this season. Florida also had the upper hand behind the service line, recording 11 aces to Alabama’s five.
“We served with them very well,” head coach Mary Wise said. “I’m really proud of our passers. They did yeoman’s work today because they are bringing the heat, the BB’s are coming.”
Wise credited her team’s recent string of victories to finally being at full health. Beason returned from an injury which kept her off the court last weekend and has not seemed to miss a beat. Freshman setter Alexis Stucky and senior outside hitter Marina Markova are also back to full-go in practice after being limited the last few weeks.
Florida scored the first three points of the match before allowing Alabama to land its first blow. A pair of kills from Beason and a Trinity Adams service ace extended UF’s first set lead to 7-1.
The Gators continued their balanced offensive attack by having Stucky set balls for junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria, whose consecutive kills set off another four-point run to extend Florida’s lead to 12-4.
With UF up 16-7, Alabama began to find its rhythm and won eight of the next 10 points. The Crimson Tide capitalized on a few mental mistakes by the Gators, including a bad set and attack error. Three kills in five points by Alabama junior outside hitter Kendyl Reaugh drew the Crimson Tide to an 18-15 deficit, the closest they would get to taking the lead in the opening set.
The Gators responded well to a timeout by Wise. A Beason block put the brakes on the Alabama rally and propelled Florida to take five of the final seven points to secure the first set. The final point was served home on an ace by Stucky.
Florida’s momentum rolled into the second set, as the Gators took a 5-1 lead on kills from sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix, Beason and Stucky. Alabama fought back to make it a one-point set on kills from Reaugh and senior middle blocker Alyiah Wells. The Gators answered back with their longest run of the night, putting up six in a row on a service run from Beason to earn a 12-5 advantage.
UF extended its commanding lead to 19-9 on back-to-back Alabama attack errors. On set point with Florida leading 24-4, the Crimson Tide strung together five consecutive points to keep the set alive, leading to a Florida timeout. A service error by Alabama senior defensive specialist Sydney Gholson sailed over every Gators player and sealed Florida’s second set victory.
Florida’s serving stole the show in the third and final set. Five service aces kept the Alabama defense off balance. The finale did prove to be closer than the first two sets, but the Gators won eight of the final 11 points to send the Crimson Tide back to Tuscaloosa.
Stucky finished the game with three kills and 25 assists, giving the freshman 375 on the season and an average of 34 per match.
“We passed really well tonight, that allowed me to open up some opportunities,” Stucky said. “Our scouting report said it was going to be open, and I am not necessarily the most offensive, but tonight was really exciting for me to take it a couple of times.”
The Gators continue SEC play this weekend with a doubleheader against the South Carolina Gamecocks Saturday and Sunday. Both games begin at 2 p.m. in Columbia, South Carolina, and will be streamed on SEC Network+.
Contact Ethan Eibe at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.
Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators volleyball for The Alligator. Outside of his writing, Ethan is a play-by-play broadcaster for UF student radio and has spent two summers announcing professional baseball with the Alpine Cowboys. He is a long-suffering Miami Marlins fan.