For one final time, the 2,936 spectators packed into the Stephen C. O’Connell Center rose to their feet.
The Gators gave them plenty to cheer for on this Saturday night, and as the ball fell to the hardwood on a blocking error by Iowa State outside hitter Eleanor Holthaus on match point, the Florida faithful ignited into a frenzy.
No. 12 Florida swept the Iowa State Cyclones (25-19, 25-23, 25-14) in the second round of the NCAA tournament to advance to the round of 16. The Gators will travel to Madison, Wisconsin, to play the Pittsburgh Panthers next Thursday, Dec. 8.
UF’s outside hitters led the way, with sophomore Merritt Beason recording a double-double (12 kills, 11 digs) and senior Marina Markova matching Beason with a dozen kills. The Gators were largely in control of the match from start to finish, but required a second-set comeback to keep their momentum intact. Florida held Iowa State to a .110 hitting percentage, despite the Cyclones benefiting from a 13-kill effort from Holthaus.
“We've been fortunate enough to be in the second round match a few times over the years,” UF head coach Mary Wise said. “Second round matches have historically just been so challenging with both teams coming off of a win.”
Florida earned a pair of points to begin the match on an Iowa State attack error and an ace from junior libero Elli McKissock smoked to the back right corner.
A bad set from freshman setter Alexis Stucky allowed the Cyclones to tie it at two, but the recently named SEC Freshman of the Year soon found her groove. The Wyoming native dished out an assist on four kills over the next five points.
UF’s balanced attack again played a substantial role, as Beason, Markova, junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria and sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley all recorded kills to give Florida an 8-3 lead.
Markova fueled the next Gators rally to double the lead, 15-7. The senior delivered three powerful kills as Florida won six of seven points.
Momentum was hard to come by for Iowa State, as it could not string more than three points together. With UF looking poised to take a 1-0 set lead, Cyclones senior outside hitter Solei Thomas and freshman outside hitter Maya Duckworth connected on kills to keep Iowa State alive.
The Gators, ahead 24-19, earned the opening set victory on a left-side kill from Stucky.
The Cyclones spun into action early in the second set, opening up a 6-1 lead on three Florida attack errors and a service ace from freshman setter Morgan Brandt. The run forced Wise to call her first timeout of the set.
Florida began to close the gap on a three-point run that featured back-to-back kills from Markova. Iowa State capitalized on a few more UF errors to extend its advantage to 10-6.
With Iowa State now leading 10-9, freshman defensive specialist Emily Canaan rescued a ball by racing into the season-ticket-holder row on the left side of the court. Stucky returned the ball over on a no-look pass with her back to the net. Florida at first won the point on a kill from Victoria, but a replay review overturned the call.
Iowa State kept pace with the Gators' comeback efforts, relying on Holthaus to send over multiple kills as the set continued.
The Cyclones held an 18-14 lead when UF began playing some of its best volleyball of the night. Florida won five of the next six points to tie the set for the first time, 19 all. The Gators took a 21-20 lead thanks to thunderous kills from Beason and Victoria.
Iowa State’s Holthaus knotted the set at 21 and the Cyclones recaptured the lead a point later on a Beason attack error. A Stucky kill and a pair of clutch blocks from Kelley brought about set point. Two serves later the set would be Florida’s, as Markova slammed the final kill down the left side of the court to give UF a two-set lead.
Florida relied on its serving to secure an early lead in the final set. Beason provided the first service ace on the UF’s second point, and sophomore defensive specialist Trinity Adams two consecutive aces to gave Florida a 5-2 advantage.
Ahead 9-5, Florida embarked on its best rally of the night to crack the finale open. UF recorded nine of the following 10 points on service runs from Canaan and McKissock.
The Cyclone’s front row defense managed to keep them in the set. A trio of blocks from junior Alexis Engelbrecht gave Iowa State a glimmer of hope. That glimmer soon faded away, however, as Stucky facilitated the final kills from Markova and Beason to send Florida to the next round.
As it became apparent to the O’Dome crowd a sweep was imminent, the always-rowdy student section began taunting the Cyclones with the all-too-familiar “nah nah nah, hey hey, goodbye” chant.
After Holthaus’ failed block sealed the deal, the Gators took a victory lap around the floor, high-fiving fans in the front rows.
“You could feel the energy,” Wise said. “When [McKissock and Beason] were going back on service runs, you can just feel how they get all the gator fans in the O’Dome and their energy behind them.”
Contact Ethan Eibe at email@example.com. 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.