The march to Ohama starts now.
Sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason allowed Florida to escape by the skin of its teeth, slamming home the final kill down the center of the court and sending a collection of smiling Gators in orange jerseys into a dogpile.
No. 12 Florida (23-5, 15-3 SEC) clinched a share of the SEC championship Saturday with a five set victory (25-23, 15-16, 19-25, 21-25, 15-11) over the Ole Miss Rebels (11-17, 7-11 SEC) in Oxford, Mississippi. It’s the 25th conference championship for the Gators, who have earned each of them under head coach Mary Wise since 1991.
The win also guarantees Florida the SEC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the 32nd consecutive year the Gators have qualified for the dance.
Florida shares the title with No. 16 Kentucky, as both teams concluded the regular season with identical conference records. Florida also split the title with Kentucky in 2017 and 2019. UF has not won it outright since 2016.
Senior outside hitter Marina Markova recorded her 1,000th collegiate kill and put up a team high 18. Beason and junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria also notched double digits, racking up 13 kills each. Florida outhit Ole Miss .322 to .265, though the Rebels flipped the script in the third and fourth sets to give the Gators a run for their money.
Although Ole Miss’ search for its first win against Florida since 1989 fell short, the Rebels received solid efforts from junior middle blocker Payton Brgoch and senior outside hitter Anna Bair, who accumulated 16 and 14 kills respectively.
Wise’s 52nd win all-time against the Rebels began with a combined block from sophomore outside hitter Katie Corelli and junior middle blocker Sasha Ratliff on a Markova hit. Florida rebounded to take a 5-3 lead on kills from Victoria and Beason.
The Gators won six of the next seven points to create some distance in the opening frame, 11-5.
Ole Miss’ acting head coach Bre Henry called her first timeout, which the Rebels responded well to. Ole Miss scored two points out of the break, before Beason snuffed out its momentum with a kill assisted by freshman setter Alexis Stucky.
Service errors plagued Florida and allowed the Rebels to keep the first set close. Wise called her first timeout after Ole Miss strung together three points in a row. The Gators’ balanced attack was able to keep them ahead, with sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix and Markova contributing kills.
With Florida hanging on to a 23-22 lead, Essix and Beason showed off their defensive prowess with a left side block to reach set point. Victoria slashed a ball to the back right corner two points later to secure the first set win of the day for Florida.
The Rebels found themselves with a 3-1 lead early in the second set, but Florida quickly erased the deficit on three-straight points.
Florida’s first multiple-point lead of the second frame arrived on back-to-back attack errors from Ratliff. The Gators extended their lead to 14-9 on a service ace from freshman defensive specialist Emily Canaan.
With UF up 17-11, Ole Miss set off a three-point rally through its outside hitters. The Gators adjusted to the Rebels’ attack, blocking back the next point with Victoria and sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley.
Florida owned the final plays of the second set, earning six of the final seven points to take a two set lead. An attack error from Corelli on a ball sent beyond the service line was the last blow of the frame.
Despite the deficit, Ole Miss came out strong in the third set to take a 6-2 advantage. Florida’s struggles early on in the set allowed the Rebels to maintain their lead. The Gators relied on Markova and Essix to pull them to within one point of Ole Miss, 11-10.
Florida’s other outsides kept the set close, with Beason and Victoria recording kills. The Rebels extended their lead to 19-15 on three-consecutive kills from freshman outside hitter Vivian Miller.
UF could not sustain any momentum offensively, and Ole Miss kept the game alive by finishing the third set on a Samantha Schnitta kill that spun off the hands of Kelley and out of bounds.
Florida displayed its resolve to begin the fourth set, taking a 3-0 lead on a service run by Stucky, capped off by an ace.
A pair of Ole Miss attack errors allowed UF to claim a five-point lead, 7-2. The Rebels facilitated killable balls to Brgoch, who connected on three straight Ole Miss points.
With UF ahead 13-9, the Rebels rallied for four points to tie the set at 13. The run showed off multiple facets of Ole Miss’s game, including a block from Bair and Brgoch and a service ace from junior setter Sommer Daniel.
The set went point-for-point until Ole Miss scored three in a row on some solid play by Ratliff to take a 19-16 lead. After a Markova kill, Ole Miss ran off three more to go ahead 22-17.
A front row attack from Essix got the Gators back on the score sheet, but Ole Miss proved too much to handle in the fourth set, scoring the final two points on a kill from Corelli and a UF error to win 25-21.
Stucky began the 15-point finale with a service ace, and UF took a 3-1 lead after a kill from Essix down the center of the court.
Ole Miss tied it at four on a kill from Schnitta and Victoria attack error. Tied again at five, Florida put up four in a row on a Trinity Adams service ace and a trio of kills from Kelley and Markova.
The Rebels continued to chip away, pulling within two, 12-10, on back-to-back kills from Brgoch. Victoria sent a kill to the back row that was at first ruled out, but the call was subsequently overturned on a Wise challenge.
The Gators pulled out two of the final three points, including Beason’s final blow, to avoid what could have been an embarrassing loss.
Now, UF’s attention turns to the postseason.
The first and second rounds of the 2022 NCAA volleyball tournament will be held from Dec. 1-3. Florida will be matched up with its first round opponent Sunday on the bracket selection show, which will be broadcast on ESPNU at 7:30 p.m.
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.