This is the weekend Florida volleyball has been waiting for.
It’s been circled on UF head coach Mary Wise’s calendar for months. With perennial Southeastern Conference contender Kentucky coming to Gainesville, the Gators knew they would have to play their best volleyball of the season.
After a thrilling third-set comeback jolted the crowd of 3,361 out of its seats, junior libero Elli McKissock put the cherry on top with a service ace. No. 10 Florida (21-4, 13-2 SEC) avenged last year’s three-set loss in Lexington with a sweep (25-18, 25-21, 25-21) of the No. 18 Wildcats (17-7, 12-3 SEC) at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Saturday afternoon.
The win is Florida’s 11th in its last 12 games and allows the Gators to take sole possession of first place in the SEC volleyball standings. Junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria paced Florida with 13 kills, and senior outside hitter Marina Markova racked up 11.
“There were rallies and moments where you could see the All-American Kentucky players make some elite-level plays,” Wise said. “We played clean enough and found a way to get enough kills.”
Wise praised her group’s performance and indicated the Gators' identity is derived from having multiple players step up when called upon.
Kentucky claimed an early advantage in the opening set.
Freshman libero Audrey Whitworth spun a service ace on the match’s first serve. UK earned its next two points on a kill from senior outside hitter Adanna Rollins and a service error from Markova. The Wildcats showed off their prowess on the front row, blocking back a pair of Florida spikes to take a 6-4 lead.
The Gators battled back with four of the next five points thanks to a balanced attack featuring kills from Victoria, sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason and sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley. UK responded with four points in a row capped off by a pair of kills from freshman outside hitter Haley Melby to retake the lead, 11-8.
Florida kept themselves in the set by capitalizing on a few Kentucky errors and some creative plays of its own. Freshman setter Alexis Stucky opted to send the ball back over the net instead of facilitating an outside attack, catching the Wildcats by surprise. Sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix slammed home a kill to reduce Kentucky’s lead to 15-13 at the first timeout.
The Gators roared out of the break with eight of the next nine points, setting themselves up nicely with a 21-16 lead. Victoria was the star of the rally, racking up three more kills.
Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner called a timeout, but Florida maintained its momentum through the rest of the set, winning four of the final five points to secure the opening frame.
The Wildcats began the second set on the right foot, taking a 4-1 advantage on three kills from Rollins. Markova unleashed a vicious kill from the left side to get the serve back to UF’s side, but Kentucky’s blocking crew showed up once more. Junior opposite Reagan Rutherford and junior middle blocker Bella Bell combined to send back a Victoria volley to extend the Wildcats’ lead to 6-3.
UF came back to life with a five-point run on two kills each for Victoria and Kelley, allowing Florida to take an 8-6 lead. Kentucky again made the set close, reducing the lead to one before the Gators scored three straight on kills from Stucky and Markova.
Florida maintained its slim lead until the latter half of the set. The Wildcats put up four of five on two UF errors, a Whitworth service ace and a Bell kill to tie the set at 20. The Gators prevented the frame from slipping entirely out of their hands by shoring up the front-row defense. Beason and Markova combined with Essix on three consecutive blocks to stock Kentucky’s late-life in its tracks.
With UF ahead 23-21, Beason and Essix put the finishing touches on the second set with back-to-back kills.
The final set was a back-and-forth affair early on.
Neither squad engineered a multiple-point lead until Kentucky embarked on a three-point rally via a service run from sophomore setter Emma Grome to make it 10-7. Florida’s pin hitters kept the set within reach, but the Wildcats began to pull away after Rollins heated up.
The Wildcats held a 19-15 lead and looked poised to force a fourth set, but the Gators had other ideas. UF won six of the next seven points to tie the set and take a 21-20 lead. The back half of the rally was set in motion by an Emily Canaan service run and featured an ace from the freshman, as well as kills from Beason and Essix.
Rutherford answered with a Kentucky point to even the score at 21, but that would be all the resistance the Wildcats had left.
Victoria collaborated with Stucky and McKissock to send over three consecutive kills to bring about match point, with McKissock’s ace finishing off UK.
“In a normal world we could celebrate this and have a week to regroup but that’s not the case,” Wise said. “We have learned from every match whether we win 3-0 or lose 0-3, so what we can do is learn from this.”
Florida will look to complete the weekend sweep of Kentucky Sunday afternoon at the O’Dome. A win would guarantee the Gators at least a share of the SEC championship. First serve is scheduled for 2 p.m. and will be broadcast on the 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 volleyball 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.