The rally lasted for what seemed like days. Diving digs, huge swings and balls hitting off the low ceiling of the Volleyball Competition Center in Columbus, South Carolina. And it all ended with outside hitter Paige Hammons.
It wasn’t a big hit or a diving play, but a simple push over the net and onto the floor. The sold-out crowd’s cheers dissipated as two South Carolina players slammed their fists to the floor out of frustration.
That hit, capped off with a kill by middle blocker Rachael Kramer a few rallies later, put the five-set match out of reach against the Gamecocks 25-17, 25-15, 18-25, 24-26, 15-12 on Friday to push the Gators’ win streak to 12 matches.
Through the first two sets, it was all Florida (16-3, 7-0 SEC). Solid execution of a good game plan helped UF dominate through the beginning of the match. The Florida back-row defense did an excellent job of taking away the strengths of South Carolina’s offense.
The Gamecocks (14-3, 5-2 SEC), who entered the match seventh in the nation in service aces per set, registered only two aces and eight errors from behind the line in those two sets.
The Gators also held the opposing offense at the net with solid blocks by the front-row defense that forced South Carolina to hit for a measly .088 hitting percentage in both of those sets. Kramer led that front row defense with five blocks through the first two sets and a career-best nine blocks on the match.
In the following two sets, however, it all changed.
South Carolina’s outside hitting duo of Brittany McLean and Jess Vastine, who was kept quiet in the first two sets, began to open the offense up by aggressively attacking UF’s block and exposing the holes in it. The pair combined for 32 kills by the end of the match with junior right-side hitter Mikayla Shields contributing 11 more.
“We just got on our heels when defending them,” coach Mary Wise said after the match. “They pulled out all of the stops. South Carolina played extremely well.”
But it was not enough. In the fifth set, Florida rallied and, with the help of a reversed call, came back and won it. Clutch kills by Hammons and Kramer, as well as right-side hitter Holly Carlton, helped put the final set out of reach.
Wise also noted that the back-to-back blocks by outside hitter Mia Sokolowski in the fifth set were key in the win.
Outside hitter Thayer Hall, who played the match in front of friends and family from her nearby hometown of Spartanburg, led the team with 16 kills. However, the freshman’s started the match hot, she was zeroed in on much more as the match went along. The 6-foot-3 outside hitter committed nine errors and three service errors by the end of the match. This will be something to improve on before Florida’s match with Alabama on Sunday.
“That’s three in a row that could have gone the other way,” Wise said. “Credit to our players for pulling it out. Could not be more proud of them for beating a team that was playing just lights out.”
Follow Dylan Rudolph on Twitter at @dyrudolph and contact him at [email protected].