What was supposed to be a celebratory day for Florida volleyball’s seniors — Marina Markova and Rhett Robinson — in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center quickly turned into a nightmare on the court.
The Gators grew frustrated and attempted to keep the match alive against their Southeastern Conference rivals, the Kentucky Wildcats. However, an attack error by sophomore Merritt Beason gave UK a victory that could affect Florida’s chances to claim an SEC title with just two regular-season games remaining.
No. 10 Florida (21-5, 13-3) fell to No. 18 Kentucky (18-7, 13-3) in three sets (25-23, 26-24, 25-17) Sunday. The Gators were held to a .163 hitting percentage and were unable to send their seniors out of the O’Dome with one more home win.
The first set started with each squad battling for territory on the left side of the net. Both teams took swings at one another, aggressively spiking the ball.
Markova and junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria continued to battle against the Wildcats' size in front of the net in the first half of set one, leading UF in attacks early. The two combined for nine attack attempts as UF trailed 15-14 midway the opening set.
The set turned into a scramble to get ahead for the Gators, who got minimal chances to attack the Wildcats. Kentucky converted 41 attack attempts into 18 kills in set one. The final kill of the frame came from sophomore outside hitter Erin Lamb. The Wildcats took the opening set, 25-23.
Despite a service ace by freshman setter Alexis Stucky to open set two, Florida allowed three Kentucky kills to follow. Two of the points were assisted by freshman libero Audrey Whitworth.
Florida’s deficit began to grow and it looked sloppy trying to control the ball from leaving play. UK took advantage to the tune of a five-point scoring run and led 9-4 after an attack error by sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley.
Kentucky attack errors contributed to a Gators comeback in the set. One of the Wildcats’ six attack errors in the second set by senior outside hitter Adanna Rollins gave Florida its first lead of set two, 17-16.
The second set was tight down the stretch after the Rollins error, tying four times. A hit by Stucky, soaring the ball just a hand’s reach away from the jumbotron in the O’Dome, rocketed its way down to Markova. She spiked it down to give Florida a 23-22 lead late in set two.
The Gators appeared to be in position to claim the set. However, Kentucky stayed close and struck forcefully down the middle for a three-point scoring run to take set two, 26-24.
The Wildcats kept their momentum rolling and opened the third set with a service ace by Whitworth. Kentucky continued to hold a lead over Florida early on, 7-3, fueled by five UF attack errors.
The Gators couldn’t break through the UK duo of redshirt junior middle blocker Bella Bell and senior middle blocker Azhani Tealer. Bell finished the match with four blocks and Tealer with seven.
After a kill by Lamb, Florida trailed 17-14 and head coach Mary Wise called timeout. However, Kentucky would only continue to dominate down the stretch.
The Wildcats held their lead to win the final set, 25-17. With the loss, Florida missed an opportunity to clinch at least a share of the SEC title with Kentucky. UF will now need to battle it out through its final two games of the season to end atop the conference.
The Gators will travel to Oxford, Mississippi, next week for a pair of matches against Ole Miss. The first is set for Friday at 7:30 p.m. and the second Saturday at 5 p.m. Both matches 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.