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Sunday, April 21, 2024

No. 14 Gators defeat Arkansas in five sets, sweep weekend

Florida rebounded from a rocky start to win its 10th conference match

The Florida volleyball team celebrates a point against the LSU Tigers Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.
The Florida volleyball team celebrates a point against the LSU Tigers Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

The wake-up call the Florida Gators asked for Sunday did not show up until the afternoon’s second set. 

After a sluggish start where Arkansas owned the opening frame, No.14 Florida (18-4, 10-2 SEC) outlasted the Razorbacks (14-7, 5-6 SEC) in five sets (20-25, 25-23, 25-18, 20-25, 15-7). The Gators had three players record double-digit kills, with senior outside hitter Marina Markova leading the group with 17. Junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria tied her season-high with 16 and sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason tallied 12. 

The Razorbacks showed up with a chip on their shoulders after enduring a tough sweep Saturday at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Arkansas’ offense also had three players put up more than 10 kills, with junior outside hitter Taylor Head gathering 17. 

“I thought our middles made good decisions and their numbers were terrific,” UF head coach Mary Wise said. “Our pins just were a little impatient, but it's a teachable moment.”

The first serve of the match from freshman setter Alexis Stucky went straight into the net for an Arkansas point. The Razorbacks’ hot start continued with a pair of kills from Head and errors from Victoria and Stucky.

With Arkansas up 6-3, Florida strung together three in a row on kills from sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley and Markova to even the ledger. The Razorbacks responded with three of their own with contributions from both youth and veterans. Graduate middle blocker Tatum Shipes and freshman outside hitter Avery Calame earned kills, followed by a service ace from graduate setter Gracie Ryan to give Arkansas a 9-6 lead.

After another kill from Markova, the Razorbacks embarked on a 6-0 run that put the opening set out of reach. The rally featured four kills, two from graduate outside hitter Hailey Dirrigl and a block from Dirrigl and Shipes to extend the lead to 15-7. 

Florida chipped away by winning six of the next 10 points to draw to within five, 18-13. Arkansas broke the 20-point bubble on a kill from Head and attack error from Victoria. The Gators relied on Markova to keep them in the set, but the deficit proved too much to overcome. A final powerful spike from Head gave Arkansas its first set victory of the weekend, 25-20. 

The Razorbacks kept the momentum going into the second set, winning the first three points on back-to-back kills from Shipes. Their lead ballooned to 11-5 following several Florida attacks that landed just out of bounds. Markova again led the charge on a budding UF comeback on both sides of the ball, pulling the Gators to within three. 

With Arkansas up 19-14, the Gators finally woke up. UF rattled off five in a row on two Markova kills and a block combo from Stucky and Kelley to tie the set. Arkansas took the lead a few plays later on another kill from Head, 22-21. Florida tied and took the lead for good on three straight points from Beason and Kelley. 

The Razorbacks challenged a devastating return from Beason to the back right corner on set point, but the inbounds call was confirmed and gave Florida its first set win of the afternoon.

The third set proved UF had returned to form. 

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After dropping the opening two points, Florida scored four consecutive points through its balanced approach. Two blocks from sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix were followed by Stucky funneling killable balls to Beason and Victoria. 

In two separate four point rallies separated by an Arkansas kill, Florida took a commanding 12-4 lead. UF’s balanced attack shined again, as six kills in the two rallies were scored by five different players. 

Outside of a three point run to make it 12-7, the Razorbacks could not get much of anything going offensively. UF never once let up on the pressure and won the set 25-18 on a strong kill from Markova right down the center of the court.  

Arkansas regained its momentum in the fourth frame, pulling ahead early 7-4. Senior outside hitter Maggie Cartwright combined with Head on a pair of kills to push the lead to 11-6. 

Florida’s best chance to tie the set arrived after it won five of the next seven points to make it a two-point affair, but the Razorbacks responded. Three kills in a row on from Dirrigl and Head pushed their advantage to 17-12. 

Arkansas stuffed another UF comeback attempt later in the set on a service run by Calame, capped off by an ace. A wide shot on set point from Beason forced the match to a decisive fifth set. 

Florida could not have asked for a better start in the 15-point finale. 

Markova, Victoria and Beason all contributed kills in the 7-1 rally, taking all the wind out of Arkansas’ sails. The Razorbacks never scored more than one point at a time in the final set. The frame ended 15-7 when Victoria pummeled her 16th and final kill, which deflected off a Razorbacks defender. 

“[Arkansas] just passed and hit so well in sets one and four,” Wise said. “We just weren't generating enough offense, which is a little perplexing because we passed the ball so well, but credit Arkansas’ defense.”

After playing three games over the last five days, Florida has an opportunity to rest and will next take the court Friday at home against the Missouri Tigers. First serve is set for 7 p.m. and will stream on SEC Network+.

Contact Ethan Eibe at eeibe@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.

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Ethan Eibe

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.


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