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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Gators downed by Panthers in regional semifinals, fall short of NCAA championship

Florida loses in four sets Thursday despite hitting more efficiently than Pittsburgh

<p>Senior outside hitter Marina Markova struck the ball toward a wall of Iowa State hands in Florida&#x27;s Round of 32 win over the Cyclones Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. Markova led all Gators with 15 kills Thursday.</p>

Senior outside hitter Marina Markova struck the ball toward a wall of Iowa State hands in Florida's Round of 32 win over the Cyclones Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. Markova led all Gators with 15 kills Thursday.

With the season on the line, Florida trailed 22-24 in the fourth set. Florida’s bench watched the ball fly back and forth, hoping for a miracle. 

Pittsburgh ended the rally with graduate student outside hitter Courtney Buzzerio hitting the ball over the Gators' heads and into the top right corner of UF’s side of the court. The play ended Florida’s season short of a National Collegiate Athletic Association championship.

No. 12 Florida was defeated by No. 6 Pittsburgh through four sets (20-25, 21-25, 25-17, 22-25) in the regional semifinals of the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament Thursday at UW Field House in Madison, Wisconsin. 

UF, despite having a .304 hitting percentage in the match, failed to control errors. The Gators committed 11 service errors and 18 attack errors. 

Pittsburgh controlled the beginning of the opening set. It got two early kills but gave the Gators their first point of the match with a service error by graduate student outside hitter Cam Ennis. 

Pitt’s errors allowed UF to gain control of the first set. The Panthers’ third attack error of the opening frame, via a mistake by sophomore outside hitter Rachel Fairbanks, gave Florida a 10-7 lead. 

The Gators didn’t take advantage of the marginal advantage and collapsed under an avalanche of Pittsburgh points. Four consecutive scores, including two kills by Buzzerio, put the Panthers on top, 11-10. 

The first set became a game of catch-up as the Panthers opened up their lead to 18-14. Senior outside hitter Marina Markova led the way for Florida with five kills in the set and forced Pitt attack errors to keep it close.

Despite the individual success from the Russian native, UF’s errors continued to slow the Gators chances of taking the lead in set one. A double contact called on Florida freshman setter Alexis Stucky finished a four-point run by the Panthers and gave the opening frame to Pitt, 25-20.

UF’s attack errors transitioned into the second set. Pittsburgh led 2-1 early in the set because of attack errors by the sophomore duo of middle blocker Bre Kelley and outside hitter Merritt Beason. 

Stucky, who came into the second set with a nose plug in her right nostril, produced offensive opportunities for Florida by setting up her outside hitters. Stucky’s fourth assist of the second set led to a Markova kill and gave the Gators their first lead of the set, 7-6.

UF’s lead, similar to the first set, was short lived. The Panthers responded by making seven of the last nine points to regain the lead, 13-9. Florida head coach Mary Wise called her first timeout of the second set. 

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Even with the timeout, the Gators found no answer to control the set. Buzzerio, who finished the match with 19 kills, was unstoppable in front of the net as the primary source of Panther kills.

Down 23-18, junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria, led a three-point UF run with two kills. 

An attack error by Pitt graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray was challenged by Pittsburgh head coach Dan Fisher. 

A point for Florida, which would’ve brought it to within one, was overturned and gave the Panthers a three-point lead. An attack error against Victoria gave the second-set victory to Pitt, 25-21. 

On the verge of being swept for the first time since Nov. 20, the Gators were overwhelmed by Pittsburgh’s offense and trailed 4-1. 

Thankfully for the Gators, two straight Pitt attack errors and a Markova kill gave Florida life.

The two squads tied six times, but blocks by Beason and Markova gave the Gators a 16-10 lead in set three. This was UF’s largest in the match. 

Florida looked like a different team and only committed one hitting error in the third set. It improved its hitting percentage to above 30% for the first time in the match. 

Sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix spiked the ball to keep the Gators’ season alive. Florida won the third set, 25-17. 

Pittsburgh, after losing the third set, started the fourth on a tear. Pitt’s duo of Gray and Buzzerio collected two kills each early in the set. Wise called a timeout after an attack error by Beason had UF trailing 6-2 in set four.

After the much-needed break, Florida scored four of the next five points. An ace from junior libero Elli McKissock brought the set to a tie.

UF kept up with Pitt until the midway mark of set four. The Panthers scored four straight to take a 14-10 lead. In another must-win set, the Gators fought to get a rally going, but it would never come.

A Buzzerio kill would end the final set of the Gators season. Pitt won the match-clinching set 25-22.

Florida’s 2022 campaign for a national championship is done.

Contact Brandon Hernandez at bhernandez@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @BranH2001.

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Brandon Hernandez

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.


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