The No. 13 Florida Gators fell in four sets, 15-25, 25-17, 23-25, 21-25, to the No. 20 Tennessee Lady Volunteers in front of the second-largest crowd in UT history Friday night.
Tennessee claimed the top seed in the Southeastern Conference as the Volunteers improved to 12-1 for conference play and 19-3 overall. The Gators fell to 17-4 for the season and 10-2 in conference matches. The Lady Vols limited the Gators to a mere .160 hitting percentage for the night, marking the first time Florida has been outhit all season, as Tennessee hit a .175 clip.
Florida is now tied with its next opponent, the Kentucky Wildcats for second place in the SEC. This breaks the Gators’ 24-set and eight-match winning streak and marks just the second time Tennessee has ever defeated Florida twice in a season.
The last time the Gators dropped a match was against the Lady Vols on Sept. 25 in the Stephen C O’Connell Center in a five-set thriller on ESPNU.
Senior leadership came into play for the Florida as outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel and setter/right-side hitter Kelly Murphy each registered double-doubles on the night. Jaeckel knocked down 15 kills and recorded 13 digs, while Murphy had 28 digs and led the defense as she scooped up 14 digs. Outside hitter Stephanie Ferrell added 11 kills for the Gators.
Junior middle blocker Betsy Smith led Florida’s blocking efforts, notching six while junior middle blocker Tangerine Wiggs also added four blocks.
Redshirt freshman libero Taylor Unroe led the match by serving up two aces, and sophomore setter Chanel Brown distributed the ball for 11 assists on the evening.
In the opening stanza, Tennessee led early on, forcing Florida head coach Mary Wise to call a timeout after the Lady Vols jumped out to a 5-0 lead. Tennessee kept the kills coming, and shortly extended its lead to 8-2.
Florida got within four on four occasions, but never gained the lead or was able to tie up the Lady Vols in the first set. Errors self-destructed the Gators, as they only hit .032 for seven attacking errors and hit the net for four serves. Jaeckel led the Gators in opening set as the senior hammered four of Florida’s eight total kills in the stanza. Tennessee’s aggressive offense was too much to overcome and the Volunteers took the opening frame, 25- 15.
The second set was a different story as the Gators battled back once the Lady Vols grabbed an early lead once again. When Tennessee went up 7-3, Florida was forced to take another early timeout but this time a 4-0 stemmed from it.
The Gators were able to take the lead, 10-8, behind the unreal serving of Jaeckel. A pair of consecutive aces from Unroe extended Florida’s lead to 13-9 and the momentum kept flowing for the Gators from there.
UT kept battling back and got to within three at 15-12, but Florida went up 20-13 as five outside hitters on the Gators earned kills in the second stanza. The Gators went on to score the final three points with kills from Murphy and Wiggs to take the second set and even the scoreboard, 25-17.
Out of intermission, the teams exchanged the lead seven times with no team ever leading by more than two points, tying the score up 12 times. Florida was at a one- point advantage, 5-4 before the set was tied at 7-7 and once again at 8-8.
Two Florida errors, however, gave Tennessee the lead at 10-8. Florida was forced to call a timeout when the Lady Vols extended their lead to 14-12. A kill from Jaeckel and block from Murphy and Smith out of the timeout tied the set up at 14 apiece.
Wiggs recorded two consecutive kills to put Florida up at 21-20 and force Tennessee to take a timeout. The Lady Vols offense ignited, and attack errors on the Gators gave Tennessee set point and a two-point lead at 24-22. The Gators gained one more point before the Lady Volunteers took the third stanza, 25-23.
Murphy’s defense was essential for Florida, as she hit the floor for six digs in the fourth set alone. The Gators jumped out to a 5-2 lead before Tennessee sophomore outside hitter Kelsey Robinson put the Lady Volunteers within one.
After the stanza was tied at the sixth, seventh and eighth points, Tennessee would take a 14-10 lead. Lady Vols sophomore libero Ellen Mullins served up an ace as Tennessee took a 16-11 lead. The Lady Vols closed out the set and the match, 25-21.
Florida will take on No. 24 Kentucky at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday in Lexington, Ky.
Gator Country reporter Elizabeth Rhodes contributed to this report. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org