Playing the same opponent two days in a row is never an easy task in volleyball. Both teams have an opportunity to adjust from the previous day’s result and implement a new strategy.
For a moment Sunday afternoon, it seemed the Louisiana State Tigers had solved the riddle of the Florida Gators. Down two sets to none, the Tigers stormed back to force a winner-take-all fifth set.
The No. 15 Gators (13-3, 5-1) claimed the 15-point finale to win their second game of the weekend (25-18, 26-24, 25-27, 21-25, 15-9) against LSU (10-8, 4-4).
Sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason matched a career high 21 kills, while junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria, senior outside hitter Marina Markova and sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix all provided double-digit totals in the category. Essix led the way defensively, racking up 10 blocks. The Gators held LSU to a .168 hitting percentage while putting up a .213 figure themselves.
“The back-to-backs are brutal,” head coach Mary Wise said. “I felt like the group showed so much resilience on a night where Merritt carried us for a long time.”
Wise said she believed the story of the game was the play of junior middle blocker Nnedi Okammor, who came off the bench in the fifth set and provided two key blocks to help close the match out.
Florida authored its first point of the match in the same fashion as Saturday, a Beason kill. LSU matched UF point for point early on and tied the game at three on a Beason service error.
The Gators went on their first significant run of the match, putting up four in a row and scoring eight of the next 10 points on kills from Victoria, Beason and Markova to extend the lead to 10-4.
Dotson helped keep LSU involved in the opening set by orchestrating kills on the right side and up the middle. After a freshman setter Alexis Stucky service ace put Florida ahead 19-12, the Tigers clawed back to a 20-17 deficit in five of the next six points.
After Wise called her only timeout of the first set, UF’s outside hitters took care of the rest. The Gators scored the final three points of the set on two Victoria kills and an LSU attack error that sailed wide right of junior libero Elli McKissock and out of bounds to win 25-18.
Florida put up the first two points of the second set on a kill from Essix and a combined block from Victoria and Kelley. The Tigers equalized and took the lead a few plays later on a three-point rally. Another trio of LSU points, capped off by a Jill Bohnet service ace, extended the Tigers’ advantage to 10-6.
The Gators chipped away at LSU’s lead, but the Tigers continued their second set dominance with four straight points that featured kills from senior outside hitter Sanaa Dotson and senior middle blocker Anita Anwusi.
With LSU ahead 16-10, Florida finally began to turn it around.
LSU took two of the next four before the Gators went on one the most remarkable runs of their season to date. UF scored 10 consecutive points in a series that saw contributions from both its offense and defense. Essix began the run with a kill toward center court and combined with fellow Alabama native Beason to block back two straight LSU spikes.
Markova got in on the action the next four points, ending three of them on kills and one via a block with Essix. A Beason kill and two more blocks from Essix shot Florida ahead 22-18.
LSU refused to go down quietly and won five of the following six points to even the second set at 23. The Gators earned set point on another block from Essix and Beason before allowing the Tigers to tie it again thanks to a net violation.
LSU defensive specialist Bri Zamora sent over a serve that landed out of bounds after UF defensive specialist Emily Canaan instinctually ducked out of the way to set up UF’s second set point. This time, Florida finished the job after an attack from Dotson sailed over the service line and out of play to give UF a two set lead.
Florida carried over the momentum from its second set comeback into the third frame.
A service run from Canaan spurred a 5-0 UF lead on three kills and an ace. The Tigers depended on their outsides to get them back in the set and won six of the next eight points to narrow the UF lead to one. LSU subsequently took its first lead of the set, 10-8, on back-to-back kills from junior outside hitter Paige Flickinger to end a four-point boost.
Florida managed to keep pace and tie the game at 14 on a kill from Beason. LSU scored the next two possessions to get ahead once again before UF strung three points together to take a 17-16 lead. Two straight kills from Flickinger flipped the script back to the Tigers’ side. A Markova kill and LSU attack error equalized the third set again at 19.
The Tigers earned set point, 24-21, on a kill from Anwusi. Florida stayed alive in the frame with three straight kills, two from Beason and one from Victoria, to even the score at 24. LSU gained the upper hand after Beason’s attack was blocked by Dotson, but Florida’s team captain found another opportunity for a kill to lock the set at 25.
LSU fired two devestating returns from Anwusi and Flickinger that carved through the Florida defense to give the Tigers the set three win, 27-25.
LSU continued its new found success into the fourth set, never relinquishing the lead. The Tigers' run of five points put them ahead 9-5 before Florida’s timeout. A service run from Stucky brought the Gators closer, but LSU embarked on a six-point streak that featured four kills in a row from Dotson to take a commanding 19-11 lead.
With the Tigers up 21-14, the Gators found a groove, adding five points on three kills to bring the score to 21-18. LSU would send the match to a decisive fifth set on a kill from junior middle blocker Alia Williams.
Wise made a key switch to begin the finale by inserting Okammor into the starting lineup. A four-point effort allowed Florida to take an 8-4 lead. It would be the last lead change of the game. Okammor made her presence felt with two crucial blocks late in the fifth set, including one that set up match point.
LSU’s Dotson returned a serve from Canaan outside the left border of the court to hand UF the weekend sweep.
“We were on the bench saying ‘we have been down way more than this. We can come back and we can do it,’” Essix said. “Even though we didn’t push through and win that third set, all that energy and determination powered through in the fifth set.”
The Gators continue Southeastern Conference play on the road next weekend against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. It will be another two-game challenge in Starkville, Mississippi. The first match is scheduled for 9 p.m. Friday and will be broadcast on SEC 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.