Gators fall to Longhorns

It’s over. A season that started with so much promise and potential has ended.

The goal was the Final Four for Florida’s volleyball team, but that plan will be put on hold until next season. Texas made sure of that Friday, defeating the Gators 3-1 in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

Playing before 4,619 O’Connell Center fans, Florida played well in games one and two, but Texas was too much in games three and four.

Too big.

Too athletic.

Too skilled.

The third-ranked Longhorns, who prevailed 30-27, 29-31, 30-16 and 30-15, face fifth-seeded Southern Cal, a 3-2 winner over St. John’s University, this afternoon in the regional final. The winner advances to the Final Four, an event that Florida has participated in seven times. The Gators, with four senior starters, hoped for an eighth trip to the national semifinals, but those aspirations became blurred when their best offensive player, Marcie Hampton, sustained a ruptured Achilles tendon against Long Beach State the last weekend of the regular season.

The seventh-ranked Gators (29-3) won two postseason matches — College of Charleston and Oklahoma — without Hampton, but Texas proved to be in a league of its own.

“I think at this time of year in the NCAA tournament you want to be playing your best and at your best,” Florida coach Mary Wise said. “That wasn’t the case with us being without Marcie. I thought the resiliency and the fight that this team showed from the moment that Marcie went down in Long Beach and through the end of game four (tonight), I couldn’t be more proud of this group of players led by the seniors. It was a tall order against a team that’s got a legitimate chance to win it all. They’re that good.”

The Longhorns, who have nine players on their roster 6-foot-2 or taller, generated 70 kills against 20 errors with a hitting percentage of .340. Florida, by contrast, hit just .127 and had 36 attack errors, 16 more than their Big 12 opponent.

UF could not match Texas’ versatility. The Longhorns (27-3) had four players — Ashley Engle (17 kills), Destinee Hooker (16 kills), Lauren Paolini (12 kills) and Juliann Faucette (11 kills) – with double-digit kills. Five Longhorns had nine or more digs. Engle had 10, giving her a double-double. Hooker, a two-time NCAA high jump champion, had nine digs.

“Texas, they’re seamless, they’re such a talented team,” Wise said. “Games one and two that was good stuff.  I can’t thank the community enough for coming out. Forty-six hundred people saw a great volleyball match and some of the premier volleyball players in the country.”

Texas’ collective size and skill chipped away at Florida. The Gators committed 16 errors – 11 while attacking, five while serving – during game four. Of course, it didn’t help when Kristina Johnson, the 6-3 middle blocker, went down with a knee injury.

“I felt as if we were in a sprint,” Wise said. “I felt like our players were giving it everything that they had. We needed it to be two out of three. It wasn’t, and Texas with what they do, will wear you down. It wasn’t lack of effort. Between their serving and their blocking and their attacking, we were being held together with band-aids. With Kristina, that was like a sucker punch.”

Amber McCray and Kisya Killingsworth combined for 27 kills. Angie McGinnis, the Southeastern Conference’s player of the year, passed for 46 assists. Elyse Cusack added 17 digs.

McCray, Killingsworth, McGinnis and Hampton are seniors. All four will be missed.

“It’s been a long journey with these guys, and we’ve been through some ups and downs,” McGinnis said. “We’ve played some great volleyball together and had some great times off the court, too. Playing with these awesome players, Marcie too, it’s been such an honor.”