The No. 17 Florida Gators lost a heartbreaker against No. 3 overall seed on Saturday night in in Gainesville. The Fighting Illini defeated the unseeded Gators 3-1, 25-22, 23-25, 25-14, 25-20, in the Stephen C. ‘O Connell Center in front of a massive 3,523 screaming fans. It was battle every single set and the players left everything they had out on the court in battle for a berth in the NCAA Final Four.
“I was really impressed with how we were able come through and fight in every single match,” UF senior Kelly Murphy said. “We might not have started out well, but everyone found a way to step it up and we made it past the Sweet Sixteen, which is something that I haven’t been able to do until this year.
“It was just a lot of fun playing with this team.”
To end a season is never a pleasant feeling, but the accomplishments the Gators achieved along the way and continuing their NCAA Tournament journey all the way to the Elite Eight is something they are more than proud of.
“For me, I couldn’t be prouder of the way that we fought,” UF senior Kristy Jaeckel said. “Going into the tournament, we were an unseeded team but we went out and we fought as hard as we could, and I think that we played the best volleyball that we have all season. Tonight didn’t go our way, but I couldn’t be more proud of everyone who stepped up and took their game to the next level these last couple of weeks.”
Seniors Kelly Murphy and Kristy Jaeckel ended their careers at the University of Florida on a phenomenal note. UF coach Mary Wise talked about how she could not have asked anything more of them and how irreplaceable they will be to the program.
“I can’t say enough great things about these two,” Wise said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get every Gator’s ‘A’ game. And we knew that to win the match, we would need everybody’s ‘A’ game and a couple of our players just had an off night, but it wasn’t Kristy and Kelly.
“They have given everything possible throughout their careers and we’ve had a pretty good run. ”
Kelly Murphy had her 30th career triple-double, knocking down 13 kills, putting up 21 assists and digging up 17 balls against the Illini. Jaeckel recorded her 10th double-double of the season, nailing 19 kills to lead the Gators and picking up 11 digs. The setter/right-side hitter and outside hitter were both named on the NCAA Regional and Championship All-Tournament teams for the Gainesville Regional.
The volleyball performance level these two brought to the court isn’t the only thing that makes them irreplaceable and special to Wise.
“They’re irreplaceable,” said Wise. “Not just their talents, but the quality people. It will be tough.”
Sophomore middle blocker Chloe Mann had 11 kills hitting on a team-high .429 clip and registered three blocks, one of which was solo. Junior middle blocker Betsy Smith hammered seven kills off of 13 swings and put up two blocks for the Gators.
Sophomore setter Chanel Brown led Florida with 25 assists and scooped up seven digs. Redshirt freshman libero Taylor Unroe recorded 13 digs against the Fighting Illini.
For the most part, the Gators and Fighting Illini were neck to neck in stats. They both registered seven total team blocks and the Illini only registered four more kills. Florida beat the Fighting Illini with 12 more digs and Illinois out hit the Gators .338 to .225. Both coaches agreed the difference in the match was the serve-receive that put Illinois on top.
“We out-dug them. There were parts of the game that we were right there, if not better,” Wise said. “It was just a matter of first contact. We were playing catch-up. For Kristy Jaeckel to get 19 kills on 40 swings, so many of those were out-of-system passes.
“Everyone in the arena knew she was getting the ball. So many of Kelly’s balls – she got very few good looks and yet still managed to find a few kills. The difference was the first contact, but man did we battle.”
“It was just serve-and-pass,” Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said. “It sounds so boring and simple, but that’s how the game is sometimes. You take care of the ball and you don’t make errors.”
The story for Illinois continued with former Gator Colleen Ward. The senior outside hitter lit it up the court with 23 kills, hitting on .500 clip. She also picked up 11 digs, served up two aces and put up four assists.
“Congratulations to Illinois, they came in here and played so well,” Wise said. “They just never really gave us a chance. They made very few unforced errors. That has been their method all season. They have enough point scorers and they don’t make errors.
“We just had no answers.”
The Fighting Illini advances to the Final Four for the third time in program history. The Gators end their season with a 27-6 record, accomplishing several incredible feats along the way, including reaching the NCAA Tournament for the 21st consecutive season and reaching the regional finals for the first time since 2005.
“I thought Florida, coming into this match and during this match, played at a really high level,” Hambly said. “Congratulations on their team making it to the final eight. I thought it was a good match and could have gone either way. They were tough to stop, and they’re one of the best offensive teams we’ve faced. They presented a lot of challenges for us.”
As for summing up the season with this incredible group of girls, Wise had her answer ready.
“I thought about this on the walk down,” she said. “Last year, we went through the SEC undefeated, and we won the SEC, but the second question that was asked on press day back in August went.
“As disappointing as your season was last year… I’m thinking one more win makes all the difference in the world, just advancing into the Regional Final. It was a great season.”