The 13th-ranked Florida Gators defeated the Mississippi State Bulldogs Sunday afternoon behind the stellar offense of Tangerine Wiggs and Cassandra Anderson in three sets (25-23, 25-18, 25-18) as they swept their eighth SEC opponent of the season in front more than 2,000 fans in the O’Dome.
The Gators have not lost to the Bulldogs in school history and are 40-0 against them all-time. Florida has now won 24 straight sets since Sept. 25 when they fell to the Tennessee Vols in five (21-25, 25-20, 21-25, 25-19, 16-18).
Junior right-side hitter Wiggs and senior middle blocker Cassandra Anderson dominated the Gators’ offense as they combined for 19 kills and five blocks. Wiggs registered 11 kills on 17 hits with no errors, hitting a .647 clip and adding a block for Florida. Anderson notched an errorless .667 hitting percentage to hammer home eight kills, put up four blocks and had three aces against the Bulldogs.
“Anytime in a three-set match where we can get a middle blocker with four blocks and eight kills, you know they performed,” head coach Mary Wise said regarding Anderson’s exceptional performance against MSU.
Florida out-hit MSU .304 to .209 as the Gators’ overall record improves to 17-3 and 10-1 in conference play, while the Bulldogs fall to 10-11 for the season and 5-7 in the SEC.
“We just wanted to come out strong, with it being the second half of the SEC,” said Anderson. “We have seen everyone play and we just want to execute on all the small things and just come out strong and finish strong.”
Senior outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel narrowly missed a double-double on the afternoon, recording nine kills and 10 digs while senior setter and ride-side hitter Kelly Murphy brought a balanced attack to Florida as usual, putting up 23 assists, six kills and eight digs.
Redshirt freshman libero Taylor Unroe and freshman defensive specialist Madison Monserez added 10 digs for the Gators and sophomore setter Chanel Brown registered 11 assists.
The first stanza was a constant battle as both teams went put up great offense and exceptional defense until the very end. Florida jumped out to an early 5-1 lead after senior outside hitter Stephanie Ferrell started the match out with a kill. Jaeckel came out firing as she knocked down four kills early on, to extend the Gators’ lead, 13-4. Mississippi State bounced back, chipping away at points, and senior outside hitter Caitlin Rance had back-to-back kills to cut Florida’s lead to six. This shifted the momentum to the Bulldogs as they closed the gap between the Gators and them through a series of kills to narrow the score down to 19-15. Wise then called a time out to try to calm the Gators down, but Caitlin Rance for the Bulldogs knocked down another kill, and an attacking error on Florida cut their lead to 19-17.
An attacking error on the Gators and consecutive kills from the Bulldogs tied the set up at 21 apiece, and Florida called another time out as MSU had come back from being down as much as nine points early on in the stanza. A kill from Stephanie Ferrell and an error on the Bulldogs set the Gators up for match point. Senior middle blocker Hannah Wilkinson kept the Bulldogs alive but a kill from Wiggs ended the opening stanza 25-23.
The second set was a different story as the Bulldogs were the ones to jump out to an early lead, going on a 7-0 run to take a 13-5 advantage. Florida answered with a 8-0 run consisting of attack errors from MSU and two kills from Kelly Murphy and junior middle blocker Betsy Smith added a kill as well. Jaeckel served for those eight straight points, making the Bulldogs sweat for every serve receive. Mississippi State’s junior outside hitter Chanelle Baker halted the run for Florida, but more attacking errors for the Bulldogs and another kill by Kelly Murphy gave Florida a 16-14 lead. Anderson then took over as she hammered home four kills to give the Gators a 23-17 advantage. An attacking error on the Bulldogs gave Florida the set, 25-18 as they went into intermission with a 2-0 set lead.
Despite being down so much in the second stanza the Gators came back fighting knowing to just focus on each point one at a time.
“When you’re down that much, you can’t really think of the big picture,” Wiggs said. “You really have to bring down into small increments and take each point for what it is.”
Wise gives Jaeckel a lot of credit for the Gators’ comeback in the second set, emphasizing how difficult it can be to serve for as many straight points as she successfully did.
“In set two, it was like two different teams,” Wise said. “We got behind, got where it was kind of snowballing on us and then we turned it around and lots of credit to Kristy Jaeckel. For her to be able to go back behind the end line and serve as many balls as she did and as well as she served, that’s what fifth-year seniors are capable of. “
The final stanza stayed close throughout the first half of the set until Florida pulled away with two kills from Wiggs to take a 14-10 lead. The Gators then went on a 5-0 run with two kills from Jaeckel to claim an 18-11 advantage. Florida kept extending their lead as they went up 21-13 with a kill from Ferrell. Anderson closed out the set and the match with an ace as the Gators won the final set 25-18.
Wise credits Mississippi State for their defense that kept Florida on their toes and their stellar left-side hitters that gave them some difficulty.
“You can see why Mississippi State had the success that they had with Kentucky and some of the other wins they have had over the course of the SEC season,” Wise said. “It’s because they play very good defense, a terrific well-coached team. We weren’t very good defending against their left-side hitters but part of that was how good their left-side hitters were.”
Outside hitter Caitlin Rance continues to be the story for the Bulldogs, as she registered a match-high 13 kills and scooped up eight digs. Senior middle blocker Hannah Wilkinson added seven kills while junior right-side hitter Faith Steinwedell recorded 10 digs and four kills. Sophomore setter Paris Perrett notched a match-high 29 assists as she kept the balance for the Bulldogs, hitting the floor for nine digs and adding three kills.
Next weekend, the Gators travel to Knoxville, Tenn. to take on the No. 20 Volunteers in a SEC showdown. Florida and Tennessee are tied for the top spot in the Southeastern conference standings. The Friday match will begin at 7 p.m., and Gator fans can tune in Sportsradio 850 for live broadcast updates. On Sunday, Florida will be in Lexington, KY taking on the Wildcats on Sun Sports at 1:30 p.m. Sportsradio 850 will also be broadcasting live throughout the match.
Gator Country reporter Elizabeth Rhodes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.