Senior outside hitter Marina Markova and sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley rose above the net. It was match point. The duo met Wisconsin sophomore middle blocker Anna Smrek mid-spike.
Literally rising to the occasion, Markova and Kelley pounded the ball back onto the Badgers side of the court. As the ball hit the ground, so did the Gators. A cheerful celebration ensued and the six players on the court were quickly joined by their teammates.
No. 16 Florida (8-2) defeated No. 4 Wisconsin (5-2) Friday, upsetting the Badgers three sets to two (25-21, 25-18, 26-28, 13-25, 15-13). Sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason showed up huge in the road match, recording a career-high 21 kills.
The venue in Madison, Wisconsin, was changed from the Badgers usual volleyball home at the Wisconsin Field House to the Kohl Center — a larger arena that hosts its basketball and hockey teams.
The change allowed Florida and Winsconsin to join the history books of college volleyball, shattering the previous regular-season attendance record of 15,797 set by Nebraska Sept. 7. The Kohl Center packed in 16,833 spectators Friday to break the mark just nine days after it had been set.
Wisconsin junior middle blocker Devyn Robinson welcomed Florida to the historic match with a kill. Markova led UF early into the fight with two kills of her own. The teams sat tied 4-4 early on.
Florida, controlling the tempo offensively by forcing the ball through the tall arms of Robinson and Smrek in front of the net, kept the first set close with the Badgers. An attack error by Wisconsin fifth-year middle blocker Danielle Hart gave the Gators their first lead of the set, 12-11.
Another Badgers attack error, this time by Smrek, extended Florida’s lead to 20-15. The Gators left the door open, however, and a Markova attack error brought Florida’s lead to just three. UF head coach Mary Wise wanted a timeout.
The Gators gave up a point coming out of the break due to an attack error by sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix, but they didn’t create any more mistakes beyond that. Florida finished the first set with three straight points, winning it 25-21 on a Robinson attack error.
The Badgers started the second set slowly and compounded their effort by giving UF four points off errors. The Gators translated that into an early 5-2 lead.
Kelley and freshman setter Alexis Stucky combined for Florida’s eighth block of the night on a hit by Wisconsin sophomore outside hitter Julia Orzol to make the lead 10-5 in set two. However, the Badgers looked to fight back once again with a three-point scoring streak, which included two straight attack errors by Markova.
Florida’s lead was narrowing after a lofty hit by Orzol found its way to the right corner of UF’s side of the court. Leading 18-14, Wise called timeout.
The Gators responded to the Wisconsin run with a four point run deep in the set, highlighted by a service ace from Beason. She’d close out the second set, 25-18, with a high-rising spike.
Through two sets Wisconsin was firmly on upset watch as Florida held the Badgers to a hitting percentage of .059 and benefited from 17 attack errors.
UF, with a road sweep in its sights, began set three with Markova attacking the net for the first kill. Despite the early lead, Winsconsin remained unphased and started challenging the Gators at their own game. The Badgers attacked the net to spur a three-point run and a 5-2 lead.
Wisconsin’s run would be short lived, as a Beason kill made way for the Florida offense to answer back with a six-point streak. Seeing his team lose its grip, trailing 8-5, Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield called timeout.
Coming back onto the court, the Badgers continued to struggle as an attack error from junior middle blocker Caroline Crawford and a kill by Beason extended Florida’s lead, 13-7.
Unfortunately for UF, mistakes would keep the game close mid way in the third. Wisconsin took advantage of three straight Gators attack errors to add to a four point run that closed the gap once again. Wisconsin was down just two, 13-11.
Florida would extend the lead to 19-13 later on in the set. Nevertheless, a three-kill streak by the Badgers, which included two from Robinson, would force Wise to call a timeout with a 19-16 lead.
Wisocnsin shook off an attack error by redshirt sophomore outside hitter Sarah Franklin and scored two quick points due to Florida attack errors.
Deep into the set, the sea of red in the crowd jolted the Badgers’ spirit. After trailing by six, Wisconsin took the lead, 24-22, and were in place to complete the comeback in set two. Florida junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria cut the Winsconsin fan base’s anticipation for a set victory with a clutch kill. A service error by Orzol sent the third set into a deuces situation tied 24-24.
After tying it twice, the Badgers took a 27-26 lead off an attack error by Stucky. Wisconsin senior setter Izzy Ashburn capped the comeback with a service ace to win the third set 28-26.
Wisconsin brought its momentum from the prior set into the fourth, aggressively attacking the Gators to start with a 6-1 lead.
The match's narrative changed quickly as Florida gave up eight attack errors to give the Badgers their biggest lead of the night at 17-7. An attack error by junior middle blocker Nnedi Okammor would finish set four. Wisconsin never conceded the lead, winning the set 25-13.
A -.086 hitting percentage performance by UF in the fourth frame would send the match to a winner-take-all fifth set. Wisconsin was on the verge of completing a miraculous comeback after trailing two sets to none.
Fifteen points separated both sides from victory and Florida found itself down half way through the fifth set, 8-5. UF wouldn’t be contained for long, though, as an attack error by Smrek capped off a four-point run that gave the Gatorsa 9-8 lead.
A service error by Wisconsin freshman libero Gulce Guctekin and a block by Victoria on Robinson brought Florida even closer to the 15 points needed to escape the Kohl Center with a win.
Markova and Kelley’s block sealed the deal.
The ball ricocheted off of the hands of Smrek and sailed to the floor. The entire Gators bench swarmed over each other in a pile on the court. Kelley, with her arms up in celebration, welcomed her teammates into the moment as Florida won set five 15-13.
The Gators now have the opportunity to build off the upset in Southeastern Conference play. UF will be back in Gainesville to host the Alabama Crimson Tide at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Wednesday at 7 p.m.
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.