Set five stood tied 13-apiece. One wrong move against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets could end the Gators volleyball NCAA bid.
Georgia Tech senior outside hitter Tamara Otene brought the Yellow Jackets to match point off a solo block. The stadium stood still as Georgia Tech neared game victory.
But senior outside hitter Sofia Victoria kept the Gators alive with a strong kill. The stadium erupted in cheers as the Gators tied the match 14-apiece.
Otene struck one more time with another kill. The next rally determined Florida’s fate in the NCAA Tournament.
Georgia Tech served the ball toward Florida. The ball danced around UF’s lineup until the Gators hit a deep center serve toward the Yellow Jackets freshman setter Heloise Soares. She passed to Otene, who slammed a fierce kill toward the Gators’ front row to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16 and knock UF out of the tournament.
The No. 4-seed Florida Gators (19-10, 10-8 SEC) lost to the No. 5-seed Yellow Jackets (24-6,13-4 ACC) 3-2 Friday night in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The loss eliminates the Gators from the NCAA Volleyball Tournament.
“I could not be more proud of this group,” said head coach Mary Wise. “I couldn’t have asked anything more of this team.”
Florida freshman outside hitter Kennedy Martin took control of the first set with a fierce kill to open the scoreboard. Seniors middle blocker Nnedi Okammor and outside hitter AC Fitzpatrick followed with a dual front-row block to deflect Georgia Tech’s efforts to keep pace.
The lead slipped once the Yellow Jackets embarked on a scoring run highlighted by Florida’s lacking defense and back-to-back kills from Georgia Tech. In a back-row hit, senior outside hitter AC Fitzpatrick landed a kill on the Yellow Jackets to trigger comeback efforts for the Gators.
A brief two-minute timeout offered Florida the momentum it needed to bounce back and string together four points to tie the game 19-apiece. Georgia Tech’s errors carried Florida to match point when junior middle blocker Gabbi Essix and graduate student setter Kennedy Muff blasted a defensive attack and forced attack errors.
The final point was a lengthy rally as both teams fought to claim victory. Martin ended the fight when she converted Muff’s pass into a kill to clinch the first set 25-22.
Martin’s strong hits burned her in the second set when a low serve hit the jumbotron and created a Florida attack error. But the Gators remained on top with offensive streaks from Okammor and Fitzpatrick to keep them up 9-8.
Midway in the set, UF lost its lead when Georgia Tech matched each of its kills with one of its own to make the score 11-9. The Gators managed to bounce back from their deficit, but they failed to build a secure cushion.
Down 17-15, Georgia Tech worked to tie the game 17-apiece with a service ace from Otene. The set became a see-saw battle with 16 ties in the second frame alone.
Victoria responded to a Yellow Jacket serve with an angled hit to push the ball directly toward fans rather than past the net and tied the score 23-apiece. Georgia Tech stood at match point, 24-23, but an Okammor kill stalled the set.
The Gators’ resilience never waivered at the end of the second set. Georgia Tech reached match point four times before taking the set. The set ultimately ended as a 30-28 Yellow Jacket win when Fitzpatrick committed an attack error from a delayed front-row hit.
Georgia Tech dominated in the third set and held UF scoreless with a six-point scoring streak in the early rallies. Wise called a timeout, but even with the break, the Gators could only string together three points to Georgia Tech’s ten.
To slim its scoring deficit, Florida capitalized on the Yellow Jackets’ service and attack errors to keep them only three points short of the lead. UF struggled to hold its rhythm in the subsequent rallies and trailed by six within moments.
Okammor jumped hands high to stop a Georgia Tech serve from going further than the front row and tally a block point for the Gators. As the Yellow Jackets neared match point, Martin kept Florida in the run with two front-row kills to make the score 23-20, Georgia Tech lead.
UF’s attempts to come back ended when Georgia Tech junior outside hitter Bianca Bertolino brought the Yellow Jacket to match point off a kill. The Gators put up a pool of defenders close to the net, but Georgia Tech’s hit floated over their heads to record another kill. Florida lost set three, 25-21.
UF’s determination to stay alive in the NCAA tournament shined in the opening of the fourth set. The team claimed a 6-1 score in minutes with back-to-back block assists.
Sophomore libero Emily Canaan’s service ace awarded the Gators an eight-point security blanket. Fitzpatrick led the set with an offensive back-row kill and an immediate service ace to keep UF ahead 17-9.
Bordering on a set three loss, Georgia Tech initiated comeback efforts. The Yellow Jackets strengthened their defensive plays and added five points to the board off of two blocks and three kills. But their error-filled offense propelled the Gators to match point, 24-17.
Fitzpatrick served straight to the net to push the Yellow Jackets to 24-18 and curve the set four ending. Victoria sealed the set’s fate off a corner kill to take home the 25-18 win.
“We’re convinced we have a route to win, ” Wise said on the mindset for set four. “Just a few minor tweaks, not major changes and then we can get to a fifth set. And that’s exactly what they did.”
The Gators never trailed in set four. They boasted almost twice the Yellow Jackets’ kill percentage with a 0.652% against Georgia Tech’s 0.346%.
Martin didn’t hesitate in the concluding set. She kept Florida up 5-3 off three kills, and Muff kept hopes high with her own kill. Okammor and Fitzpatrick teamed up to deflect Otene’’s hit for another Gator point to make the score 7-4.
After a quick courtside switch, Georgia Tech destroyed Florida’s comfortable lead with a three-point scoring run. Canaan kicked off their streak with a service error, and the Yellow Jackets continued with two more kills.
With help from senior libero Elli McKissock, Fitzpatrick hit a high-flying kill across the net to keep their lead. Martin matched Fitzpatrick with two of her own kills, but the Yellow Jackets replied with an offensive attack as well.
The final rallies in set five were a collection of Georgia Tech’s offensive lineup fighting to take the win. Florida struggled defensively against their kills and fell 16-14 in set five.
The Florida Gators volleyball team will end their 2023 season with a 19-10 overall record. Wise has high hopes for the upcoming season despite the tournament outcome.
“In two different rankings, we have the No. 1 recruiting class coming back.” Wise said.” So the future is very, very bright.”
Contact Krisha Sanghavi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @krishasang.
Krisha Sanghavi is a third-year public relations and economics major. In her free time, she loves cheering on Miami sports teams and spending time with her friends.