The No. 16 Florida Gators took full advantage of their final homestead, claiming their 20th SEC title Sunday afternoon in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
The Gators swept the Gamecocks 25-19, 25-14, 25-19 after defeating LSU at home Friday evening, 3-1 (22-25, 25-22, 25-11, 25-13). Defeating one of the opponents this weekend would have secured Florida a share of the title but winning both matches made it certain only the Gators could be the champions.
“The theme on Friday night was our team’s defense and today was the offense,” Florida head coach Mary Wise said. “We had four people in double-digit kills and hit .464. Taylor Brauneis did a really great job with set distribution and we were just a little bit quicker to the ball and made good decisions. Our goal is trying to put our best defense with our best offense and take it on the road for the last two matches.”
Not only did the Gators get to celebrate a season full of success but also it was the perfect ending to a senior night for Tangerine Wiggs, Betsy Smith and Sundai Weston.
“It was great it was so nice to have everyone’s family here,” Wiggs said. “[We] really came together before, and we were really focused on the game. But at the same time, we took a moment to take it all in. This could be our last time playing in the O’Dome, so we really wanted to enjoy the experience with our teammates.”
“It’s been such an incredible journey, and I’m so grateful my parents have been here to support me through all of it,” Weston said.
All 20 SEC titles have come from under coach Wise whose team has now moved to 17-1 in SEC play and 23-4 on the season. In the preseason poll, the Gators were chosen to finish third overall in the SEC. Overcoming adversity isn’t a new concept to Florida as the team has adjusted to many changes this year. That’s just what makes this title win that much more of an accomplishment.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Betsy Smith, a senior middle blocker and team captain. “At the beginning of the season it’s something we always say is our goal, and it’s been so special this season. Through all the ups and downs we’ve had with injuries and sicknesses, and with the young freshman class it’s taken all of us, a full team effort, and that’s what’s so special about this win today and winning the SEC.”
Friday night, sophomore libero Taylor Unroe led the Gators with a career-high 27 digs against the LSU Tigers in Florida’s comeback win.
“Taylor Unroe played some of the best defense of her career in sets three and four,” Wise said after the victory against LSU. “We’ve been a lot about our offense, but tonight it was the defense that won the match.”
Freshman outside hitter Ziva Recek was the perfect balance of offense and defense against LSU. Recek led the offense recording 14 kills and scooped up 18 digs to aid the backcourt. Sophomore defensive specialist Holly Pole aided Unroe in the backcourt registering 14 digs and serving up a match-high of two aces.
Smith led Florida’s hitting efficiency against the Tigers with a .400 clip, notching 11 kills and stuffing four blocks. Junior middle blocker Chloe Mann and senior right-side hitter Tangerine Wiggs each tallied eight kills. Mann blocked a career-high tying and match-best seven blocks against LSU, while Wiggs recorded six blocks.
Junior setter Taylor Brauneis led the match with 38 assists and added five digs and two stuff blocks. Freshman outside hitter Berkley Whaley added six kills for the Gators.
In the match to claim themselves conference champs it was senior and experienced leadership that led the way for Florida on the court. Smith and Wiggs combined for 21 kills and both hit high efficiencies. Brauneis led the Gators with 50 assists, the fifth-most assists in a three-set match in program history. The junior added six digs for Florida.
Recek was nothing short of spectacular recording another double-double with a match-high 17 kills and 10 digs. Mann hit on a .524 clip registering 12 kills while Whaley recorded seven errorless kills on a .636 clip.
Unroe led the backcourt with 14 digs while Pole scooped up 10. Sophomore defensive specialist Madison Monserez added nine digs against the Gamecocks.
“This is all about putting ourselves in the best position come selection show,” Wise said. “In the last week of the season, right before the NCAA committee is making their decision, we want to have Florida in the best possible light that we can. We can do that with just four losses but most importantly, we want to be playing our best volleyball at the end of the year and that’s what we’re going to be working on with the players and selling them on.”
The NCAA Selection Show airs at 4 p.m. on Nov. 25 on ESPNU. Florida’s conference title automatically gives the Gators a bid in the NCAA Tournament.
The Gators’ final matches of the regular-season are on the road against SEC foes Auburn and Georgia. Florida take on the Tigers at 8 p.m. on Nov. 21 in the Student Activities Center, and, after Thanksgiving, the Gators take on the Bulldogs at 7 p.m. on Nov. 23 in the Ramsey Center to close out their regular season.
Gator Country reporter Elizabeth Rhodes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.