In front of a crowd of thousands yelling in unison toward a hardwood court in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, freshman libero Emily Canaan finished a showcase of UF dominance with a service ace.
Her final point put the Gators on the right course to begin their postseason run with high aspirations.
No. 12 Florida advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a victory over the Florida A&M Rattlers in straight sets (25-15, 25-15, 25-9) Friday night. Sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix led the way for UF with eight kills and a hitting efficiency of 63.6%.
The Gators held the Rattlers squad, who averaged 13 kills per set this season, to 21 total kills and a .049 hitting percentage.
The first set started with Essix grabbing two kills. She showed off her leaping abilities, spiking balls over the net as UF went up 5-1 early.
The Rattlers climbed back into the opening set due to multiple Florida attack errors. Four of FAMU’s seven points to start the first frame were thanks to Gators’ errors.
An error by junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria tied the set at seven. From there, the Gators resolved their issues and scored eight of the next 12 points. Midway through set one, at a media timeout, Florida led 15-11.
Florida A&M struggled coming following the break. The Rattlers couldn’t keep up with the Gators’ pace after a poor set by redshirt senior setter Irem Ucar found no one on the other end.
Florida, behind a .310 hitting percentage, ended the first set with a side-armed hit kill by senior outside hitter Marina Markova, 25-15.
FAMU began the second set looking to improve offensively. The Rattlers hit below a 4% clip in the first frame, but they got off to a solid start, 1-0, with a kill by sophomore outside hitter Brookie Lynn Watts.
Florida A&M kept close with the Gators until an Essix kill started a three-point UF run. Rattlers head coach Gokham Yilmaz, down 7-4, called a timeout to try and stop Florida’s momentum.
The Gators, however, continued to pull away in the second set. Sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley got involved, spiking the ball onto FAMU players in front of the net to force errors.
UF began to get sloppy controlling the ball midway through set two. Sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason had two balls deflect off her hand. Up 19-14, head coach Mary Wise called a timeout.
Florida wouldn’t commit another error throughout the rest of the second set, and it only had one kill get past defensively. An attack error by FAMU graduate student outside hitter Dominique Washington gave the Gators another set, 25-15.
On the verge of a sweep, Essix, who led the team with a 71.4% hitting efficiency and six kills through two sets, opened the third set with UF’s first two points.
UF fans got into the match, joining the Gators’ band with antics in chants yelling, “Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!”. After a service error by Taylor to give Florida a 6-3 lead early in the third, the crowd responded, “Florida A&M, what happened?”
The pressure weighed down on the Rattlers like sand on top of a coffin. The Gators pushed FAMU further into a deficit in set three, 12-3. Yilmaz used his fifth timeout of the match to give his team a moment of air.
The moment was short lived. Florida continued to spike at the mismatched Rattlers with pure force.
Florida junior outside hitter AC Fitzpatrick, junior middle blocker Nnedi Okammor and graduate student Rhett Robinson — who recorded a kill after entering the match — saw rare playing time on the big stage.
The Gators, who laid down 10 aces throughout the match, ended the night that very way. Florida won the third set 25-9.
The Gators moved the ball successfully between the middles and the setter. UF collected 39 kills in stride in the match while confusing FAMU into hysteria.
“Honestly we have really great passes in seconds like dishing out,” Essix said. “I have to give it to my team.”
Florida advanced to the second round, and it will now face Iowa State Saturday at 7 p.m. The match from inside the O’Dome will stream on ESPN+.
Brandon Hernandez is currently the enterprise sports writer and sports podcast host for The Independent Alligator. He likes long walks on the sidewalk and watching basketball tape in his off time. You can find most of his work @BranH2001 on X and on The Courtside Podcast on Spotify.