For the third time in as many sets, Arkansas was on the comeback trail. Each had seen Florida’s comfortable lead dwindle, but never completely evaporate.
With their backs against the wall, the Razorbacks strung together four points to draw within one of the Gators. UF showed its resolve, however, by hammering home the final three points of the match — the final blow arriving on a kill from sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason.
No. 14 Florida’s (17-4, 9-2) three set sweep (25-20, 25-20, 25-21) over Arkansas (14-6, 5-5) at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Saturday afternoon kept UF atop the Southeastern Conference standings. The Gators are now 23-0 all-time against the Razorbacks at the O'Dome.
Florida’s outside hitters led the charge, with senior Marina Markova earning 11 kills and Beason racking up 10. Markova also made her presence felt defensively. She tied sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley with four blocks, several of which were key in flipping the momentum back to Florida’s side.
“We were fortunate that we made some plays at the end of each set, but it could have easily gone more than three,” UF head coach Mary Wise said. “We just weren’t as clean as we’d like to be, but that’s part of the growing process.”
Florida set the tone with the first three points of the match and a service ace from freshman setter Alexis Stucky. Arkansas closed the gap to one after a three-point rally to make it 5-4 Gators. Junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria earned her first kill of the match one point later. Beason spun an ace off a Razorbacks defender to give UF an 8-5 advantage.
A few Florida attack errors kept the set close until the offense clicked on its first significant rally. A Beason kill spurred a five-point effort, including four Arkansas attack errors, to put Florida ahead 16-10. The Razorbacks chipped away on outside hitter kills from junior Taylor Head and senior Maggie Cartwright.
Florida again found its rhythm on a service run by junior libero Elli McKissock. The Gators got those two points back immediately on a Victoria kill and a block from Kelley and sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix, leading to an Arkansas timeout. UF ran off three more points right after the break on two Beason kills to take a commanding 21-12 lead.
With UF up 23-13 and two points from a set win, Arkansas staged its first comeback. The Razorbacks scored seven consecutive points by taking advantage of several Florida mistakes, including a pair of ball handling errors from Stucky.
Florida buckled down to finish the set strong, winning 25-20 on Victoria’s third kill and an acrobatic block combo from Markova and Kelley.
The second set began with a Florida point on a leaping block from the 6-foot-5-inch Markova.
Arkansas took its first multiple-point lead of the match on back-to-back attack errors from Kelley. With Arkansas ahead 5-3, UF returned to form with another five-point run. The Gators defense came up big again with a pair of blocks from Markova and Kelley bookending a Trinity Adams service ace.
The Razorbacks found the opportunity to score two more to make it a one-point set, but Florida responded with three straight kills from Markova and Stucky to make it 11-7. Arkansas kept the set close by relying on its outside hitters to power the offense. Graduate outside hitter Hailey Dirrigl and Cartwright both found the hardwood to keep the set within two.
Florida began to pull away following kills from Stucky and junior middle blocker Nnedi Okammor to extend its lead to 18-13. After the Razorbacks responded with a pair, Florida earned four of the next five points on three more kills from Markova to put Florida ahead by six, 22-16.
Arkansas countered with three on kills from Dirrigl and Head, but it was not enough to take down the Gators, who won three of the final four points to take a two-set lead.
The Gators scraped out an 8-4 lead early in the third set before putting some serious distance between themselves and their SEC opponent. A five-point leap doubled Florida’s lead to 14-7 and featured two more kills from Markova.
Arkansas and UF then traded three-point runs before the Razorbacks began eating away at the lead. Arkansas won six of the next 10 points to make it a five point game, 21-16.
Down 22-17, Arkansas’ final push saw back-to-back aces from graduate setter Gracie Ryan and two UF errors. Clinging to a 22-21 advantage, Florida secured the final three points to end Arkansas’ bid to extend the match.
Markova credited her fourth consecutive match with double-digit kills to her foot injury from earlier this season finally healing. She also said she has seen a growth in the confidence of the team, specifically in her chemistry with Stucky.
“There was some downs and ups, but I think we are finally realizing our connection the more games we play,” Markova said.
Florida will seek its 10th win in SEC play Sunday afternoon in a rematch against Arkansas. First serve is scheduled for noon and will broadcast 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 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.