Tennessee sophomore outside hitter Erykah Lovett wound back her arms for a spike in an attempt to keep the Lady Vols alive at home. To no avail, the ball sailed far right of junior libero Elli McKissick and out of bounds, clinching the Gators’ road victory.
After a 10 day hiatus, No.15 Florida (11-3, 3-1) defeated the Tennessee Volunteers (8-8, 2-2) three sets to one at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee, Wednesday (26-24, 25-23, 16-25, 25-20).
A service error in the first set by freshman libero Emily Canaan started the Gators off on the wrong foot. After giving up two straight points, UF would answer back with a four-point run, two of those being aces by McKissick.
The unranked Lady Vols would continue to keep the early set close, as unforced errors became an issue early for Florida. The line under the net met sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason’s foot for two lane violations early in the first set. Both teams were tied at five early in the first.
The Gators began to break away with a lead midway through the set as the trio of Beason, sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix and senior outside hitter Marina Markova kept Tennessee away from the lead.
After a Beason kill to make it a 17-12 lead in the first set, a challenge by Tennessee head coach Eve Rackham Watt, paused UF’s momentum. After a quick look at the monitor for review, the officials deemed the challenge successful, taking away the point from the kill.
This changed the tone of set one.
Following the challenge, the Volunteers scored two straight points and kept pace with Florida, drawing the set back to 16-14 late.
With a spike by Lovett, the set became tied 24 a piece. UF head coach Mary Wise called timeout with the opening frame hanging in the balance. However, after a service error by Tennessee senior right-side hitter Morgahn Fingall and a spike by Essix, Florida took set one 26-24.
Sophomore outside hitter Bre Kelley got the Gators started in set two with a kill, but Lovett automatically answered back with a kill of her own. This was only the beginning of a set that would go back and forth, tying nine times before either team hit double digits.
Midway through the set, an Essix kill started a four point run for Florida to break away from Tennessee with a 19-15 lead. Watt — seeing her team dissolve in front of her eyes — called timeout to stop the bleeding in the second set.
Tennessee junior outside hitter Jasmine Brooks responded to the break with a spiking kill. The point wouldn’t give the Lady Vols the lead, but it started to brew momentum as they built a few runs to tie the set once again at 23 a piece.
However, similar to the opening set, a spike from Markova secured Florida’s set two win, 25-23.
The Gators, now sitting comfortably with a two set lead, continued to aggressively attack the net, but the Lady Vols adjusted to their speed and took a 6-3 lead early in the third set.
Florida fell behind and struggled to climb back on its own. Thankfully for the Gators, mistakes by Tennessee due to service errors kept the set within reach.
Lovett, spiking the ball with lightning quick speed, pushed her team’s lead to 17-14 midway through the set.
The Gators, only scoring back-to-back points three times so far in the set, went into a timeout. Wise bounced her leg anxiously as the Gators trailed 19-15 in a potentially match-clinching set.
Volunteers redshirt freshman middle blocker Klaudia Pawlik blocked a try by Essix to boost the home team’s momentum. The Lady Vols took set three 25-16 to extend Florida’s time in Knoxville.
Senior setter Natalie Hayward continued Tennessee’s success with a service ace to start set four. Now with an early lead for the second frame in a row, the Lady Vols looked to defend their lead from the agitated Gators.
UF struggled to make hits inside the lines of the court and played to catch up with great hustle to keep the set close early.
Florida was finally given a chance to regain a lead after a service error by Tennessee graduate designated hitter Abigail Matoso tied the set at 15. A service ace by freshman setter Alexis Stucky did the trick, giving Florida its first lead of the set.
The Gators were animated late, as the urgency of finishing the match echoed through the young team.
The Lady Vols slipped out of the set, and an attack error by Lovett sealed the deal. UF won set four 25-20.
Florida ended the final frame with 17 kills, the most of either team in a single set during the match, while also notching a hitting percentage of .371.
The Gators head back to Gainesville to host Louisiana State for a Southeastern Conference doubleheader this weekend. Matches inside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center is slated for Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Both 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.