Gators senior Rhamat Alhassan sat next to redshirt senior Shainah Joseph and coach Mary Wise. Microphones were perched in front of them and a backdrop checkered with the NCAA’s logo stood behind them.
“It’s surreal,” Alhassan said, referring to playing in her last home match, a 3-2 comeback win over USC in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. “That’s somewhere I’ve been playing the last four years… but I’m not done playing.”
Neither is the rest of Florida’s volleyball team, a squad that’s won 29 of 30 games this fall. With the season on the line, Alhassan led UF past a tough Trojans team (25-10) in what may be the most dramatic match of its 2017 season — and into the Final Four.
Despite Carli Snyder, the Gators leading points-scorer, being held in check for most of the night, Florida pulled off a gritty comeback thanks to big outings from Alhassan, Joseph and sophomore Rachael Kramer.
“We all support each other and we all trust each other,” Joseph said. “So when we need to step up our game — let’s say one person is not having a great night — we can do that easily.”
Joseph, Alhassan, Kramer and Snyder accounted for more than 80 percent of Florida’s kills, and redshirt freshman Mia Sokolowski also gave the offense a boost off the bench with seven kills.
The first set was hotly contested, featuring 17 ties. The largest lead on either side was just two points, but the offensive production of Alhassan and Kramer, coupled with the defense of Alhassan and senior Caroline Knop, proved to be the difference in a 25-23 win for Florida.
The second set went to the Trojans, who overwhelmed the Gators with a 13-3 run. The Gators tried to claw back, but couldn’t pull within three points of USC. While Florida was efficient hitting the ball, recording just one attack error, the Trojans’ run and four UF service errors led to a tie at one set apiece.
In Set 3, the Trojans hit the ball more than three times as efficiently as Florida and held Snyder to zero kills. An early 5-0 run put USC up for good in the frame, and the Trojans closed out the set to earn a 2-1 advantage.
Just one set away from being upset at home, UF started to clean up what had been a sloppy performance and Snyder came alive, igniting the crowd and boosting the team’s confidence. Then, down 24-23, the Gators scored three straight points, punctuated by a thunderous kill from Shainah Joseph, to even up the match at two sets apiece.
Florida had a rough start to the final set. USC jumped out to an early 8-4 lead following six kills from Khalia Lanier. But with its back against the ropes, Florida stormed back, finishing the match on an 11-3 run to seal its ticket to the Final Four on Thursday against Stanford in Kansas City.
Wise credited the victory to the team’s depth and a “tremendous” crowd, which was often deafening, after the match.
Joseph, one of the most vocal leaders on the team, was seen multiple times trying to energize her teammates and spark a comeback.
“We do this drill all the time where there’s one side that’s up by three to four points and we have to come back and find ways to get kills,” Joseph said. “So that’s what I told my team: ‘We do this all the time.'”