Fresh off of their final timeout and riding a four-point streak, the Gators were one point away from a rivalry win over Florida State. Before the final serve 2,357 spectators rose to their feet, blue foam fingers waving side to side in the student section.
An assist from freshman setter Alexis Stucky fell perfectly into the wheelhouse of junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria, who slashed the ball down the left side of the court for the final kill of the night.
No. 16 Florida (7-2) fed off of its home crowd’s relentless energy to sweep the Florida State Seminoles (8-2) right back to Tallahassee Tuesday night (25-19, 29-27, 25-22). The victory is UF’s fourth in a row and follows a three-win weekend in the Sunshine Invitational.
The Seminoles arrived in Gainesville looking for their second win in a row against the Gators, a feat they had not accomplished since 2013 and 2014. Instead, FSU was handed its third consecutive sweep in matches played at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center dating back to 2017.
UF held Florida State to a .186 hitting percentage on the night and put up a .345 clip of its own. The Gators received the boost of having their team-captain, sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason, back in the lineup after she missed the previous weekend with an undisclosed injury. Beason was cleared to play just before team warmups after not practicing for nearly a week and recorded a team-high 13 kills.
“It's always fun playing in in-state rival, but tonight was definitely special,” Beason said. “I think having that next-play-mentality of ‘hey, we didn't get that one but we're gonna get the next one’ helped us a lot.”
Florida head coach Mary Wise was thrilled with Beason’s effort on such short notice.
“It is such a display of effort and grit for her to play as well as she did without any practices,” Wise said.
She referred to the crowd as the “seventh player” in the game and was impressed with the turnout on a Tuesday night.
Florida State owned the opening phase of the first set, winning eight of the first 11 points. A pair of three-point runs by the Seminoles put some distance between them and the Gators, prompting Wise to call her first timeout. UF responded well to the break, recording three consecutive points on a kill from Stucky, service ace from sophomore defensive specialist Trinity Adams and a Florida State attack error.
The Gators continued to battle back, managing to keep pace with FSU on kills from Beason and sophomore middle blockers Gabrielle Essix and Bre Kelley. The Gators would not catch up or take the lead until late in the set, when Beason slammed a ball into the back right corner to even the score at 16. Florida chose a good time to embark on a four-point rally two plays later, which featured a pair of kills from senior outside hitter Marina Markova to extend its lead to 21-17.
A trio of Florida points capped off by another Adams service ace sealed set one for the Gators.
A service error from Stucky awarded Florida State the opening point of the second set. Florida took its first lead in the frame on back-to-back kills from Kelley, 4-3. FSU would snatch the advantage right back before Markova strung together three straight kills of her own to give the Gators a 9-8 edge.
The Seminoles would go on to win seven of the next 11 points to hold a slim 15-13 lead. Up 20-16, Florida State looked to be in control before Florida rattled off four in a row on two attack errors, a Victoria kill and Elli McKissock ace to even the set once again at 20.
After FSU senior middle blocker Emma Clothier sent a soft touch towards the center of the court for a 23-21 Seminoles lead, Florida’s defense began to shine. A Florida State volley looked destined for the back row of UF’s side of the court before a diving save from freshman defensive specialist Emily Canaan allowed McKissock to sprint in the opposite direction of the net and make a no-look return.
A few volleys later, Victoria smashed one over the net out of bounds, awarding FSU the point. It would be overturned a minute later when the officials ruled Victoria’s volley had clipped the finger of a Seminoles front-row player before heading out.
Up 24-23, Florida State’s first set point was botched via a Khori Louis attack error. After an Essix error gave FSU another chance, Markova came up clutch with a pair of kills to give Florida a chance to take set two. The Seminoles countered with kills from Louis and sophomore outside hitter Audrey Koenig. At last, Florida decided it was tired of going back and forth with its in-state rival.
A three-point UF run would stop the FSU comeback in its tracks. A kill from Beason tied things at 27. An attack error gave the Gators the lead. Finally, a set clinching spike from Victoria carved out a two-frame advantage.
The Seminoles did not appear fazed by the comeback; they would need a miracle to pull it off. FSU earned nine of the first 13 points in the third set before Florida slowly began to chip away.
The Gators relied heavily on their middle blockers to fire back serves toward the Seminoles’ front row. A kill from Beason drew Florida to within two before a hat-trick of points culminating with a Canaan service ace pulled both squads even at 20.
FSU managed to score the next two points before Wise called her final timeout of the set. It would be all the Gators needed to regroup and retake the lead for the final time. A service run from McKissock began with a knuckling ace towards center court to tie the game at 22.
The five-point game-ending run was tied in a bow by Victoria’s last touch.
Wise attributed her team falling behind early in the second and third sets to a rusty transition offense and too many unforced errors.
“We just felt like a young team that didn't get the emotional wind out of our system fast enough,” Wise said.
On the comebacks, however, she credited the youth of her squad.
“I think it's the beauty of youth. They don't know any better,” Wise said.
Florida will now prepare for its second top-5 matchup of the season against the defending national champions, No. 4 Wisconsin, at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
“We are going to treat [Wisconsin] like it's just another game,” Beason said. “Learning from what we learned about ourselves tonight and getting back into the gym and working on our scout against them. It's another opportunity to play volleyball so we're going to look at it that way.”
First serve Friday is set for 8:30pm EST on the Big-10 Network.
Contact Ethan Eibe at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.
Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators baseball 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.