Coach Mary Wise stood up on the sidelines and emphatically extended her arms in and out, portfolio in hand.
It was just the beginning of the fifth frame, and her actions echoed what Florida’s block had failed to do for most of the match: Press their hands into the court so the ball deflects in-bounds and close the seam (the space in-between blockers).
Kentucky’s a smart team. And despite the 17th-best team in the country — at least on paper — dropping the second and third frames, there wasn’t much to worry about from their side of things. It’s how the Wildcats won the five-set marathon on Florida’s home court Sunday (25-21, 15-25, 23-25, 26-24, 15-12), and possibly took the SEC title.
This loss stung even worse than the one Florida (21-4, 12-2 SEC) was handed on the road at Kentucky earlier this season.
Sophomore Thayer Hall — who notched 22 of Florida’s 63 kills — certainly knew how close her team was to changing the storyline of this UF squad.
“Obviously we went up there, when they pushed, we didn’t push back,” she said after Sunday’s loss. “And the same thing happened today.”
Hall cited the play of Kentucky’s pin hitters Leah Edmond and Alli Stumler, who combined for 57 of UK’s 78 kills on the match, as an issue that contributed to the loss. They set an unbelievable pace that Florida just couldn’t keep up with.
“We did not push like we know we can,” Hall added.
Florida was a point away from taking the match with a 24-23 lead in the fourth frame and a 2-1 set lead over the Wildcats (20-6, 12-2 SEC). But the Gators relented and Kentucky took advantage, winning the next three points in swift fashion.
Florida allowed that stretch of points to fester in the back of its mind, opening up the fifth and final set down five points before finally getting on the board.
“It took a lot of energy out of us being so excited to almost win the match,” middle blocker Rachael Kramer said. “Our team needs to know that can’t go into the fifth set. You have to roll that over after the fourth and continue on.”
The frustration on Hall’s face was clear after the match, but during the game she carried her team with the most passion on the court, getting hyped up after every point and trying to rally her team back in the game point after point.
Florida and Kentucky will each have to win their remaining games to be crowned co-champions by the end of conference play. But one hiccup could break the dam wide open.
No. 11 Florida’s upcoming matches include road games at Auburn and Georgia and home matches against Arkansas and Texas A&M. Both the Bulldogs and the Aggies are the only teams in the conference to defeat the Wildcats. Needless to say, the stakes are high.
“Well, now let’s see how we respond to the pressure,” she said, “because we’re going to share an SEC Championship or we’re not.”
Yet, Wise isn’t worried about how her team will react.
“There’s a ton of volleyball left ahead of us,” she said. “An SEC Championship is still in front of us.”
She said her team battled with a tough Kentucky offense, who came in and played “as advertised.” Wise credited the Wildcats’ ability to throw Florida off its balance and steal the match, even when the odds weren’t in its favor.
But now it’s about turning the page.
Kramer, one of four seniors on Florida’s roster, said she’ll take the day to wallow in the loss, but tomorrow’s a new day, and there isn’t any time that can be wasted on Sunday’s match when her team walks into the gym for practice Monday.
“Knowing that there’s so much that we can work on and because we were so close, if we just clean up a few things...that’s it,” Kramer said. “We’re that close.”
Follow Mari Faiello on Twitter @faiello_mari. Contact her at [email protected]