By: Shauni Lynch
No. 8 seed Florida Gators will advance to the Elite Eight after a suspenseful battle with No. 9 seed Illinois. In the five-set match, Florida used efforts from three double-doubles, sophomore right side Alex Holston (18 kills, 5 digs), freshman middle Rhamat Alhassan (15 kills, 10 blocks), and junior setter Mackenzie Dagostino (51 assists, 10 digs), to defeat Illinois and win their 23rd straight match.
To start the thrilling first set, Illinois took an early three-point lead. Florida fought back and with a kill from junior Gabby Mallette and a combined block from Alhassan and freshman Carli Snyder, the Gators took its largest lead of the set at 12-10. Back and forth action continued until Snyder came through with a monster block putting the Gators up 23-21. Florida finished set one with a 25-22 win and a total of 16 kills, 3 blocks and a .375 clip.
As the second set began, Illinois took a 10-6 lead. There was no breaking the lead the Illini had, even with the strong efforts of another block from Alhassan. Illinois took the second set 25-21. Entering the third set, the Gators took the early 4-3 lead this time with a stellar block from sophomore Shainah Joseph, who had a career best .538 clip and five blocks on the game. The lead went back and forth between the Gators and Illini until an eventual Illinois set three win.
With Illinois having a 2-1 match lead, the Gators headed into the fourth set ready to rally back. Junior Ziva Recek served up an ace for Florida to pull ahead 9-5. Florida’s defense, led by seniors Holly Pole and Maddy Monserez with double digit digs, held off the Illini as the Gators took a 20-14 lead. UF took the fourth set 25-17, tying up the score 2-2 and forcing a fifth set.
In the match that would determine Florida’s future in the NCAA Tournament, the Gators weren’t going to go down easy. Taking an early 6-2 lead, the Gators used another block and huge kill from Joseph to pull ahead. It was time for the match point for the Gators with a 14-12 advantage, but with efforts from Illinois, they tied it up 14-all. Florida rallied together for the comeback and battled it out for the match point (16-14), giving the Gators the fifth set and a Sweet Sixteen victory.
Holston and Alhassan each posted over 20 points for the Gators, at 22 and 20.5 points respectively. The Gators had a team total of 16 blocks on the night and limited Illinois to a .170 hitting efficiency.
The Gators take their next step with a ticket to the Elite Eight with a match against No. 1 seed Stanford. The match is slated for 9 p.m. and the winner will be advancing to the Final Four.