UF rallies to stay perfect in SEC play

The No. 11 University of Florida volleyball team (13-2, 7-0 SEC) completed an epic comeback, rallying from two sets down to defeat SEC East rival Kentucky, 3-2 (22-25, 20-25, 25-22, 25-22, 15-8), on Sunday afternoon. The Wildcats fall to 10-7 on the year and 4-3 in SEC play. The Gators continue their undefeated streak in SEC action (7-0) and are currently on a 10-match winning streak.

“I think the tale of the match was that Kentucky played so well especially early on and we were just having a hard time getting in sync offensively,” Florida head coach Mary Wise said. “It took us a while but once we started passing the ball and allowed Taylor Brauneis to get a (quality) ball, then we could start distributing. You have to give Kentucky so much credit. Today, we saw how lethal they can be, especially with their ability to get kills from so many different positions.”

“In a night in which we didn’t have our best stuff and the opponent was playing so well, we stayed the course,” Wise continued. “What most pleases me is that you never saw the look of giving up or defeat on the team. They’re grinders and that’s who we are.”

The comeback marked the third time in four years that Florida rallied from an 0-2 hole to beat an opponent and the second time in program history the Gators have come back from an 0-2 deficit to defeat Kentucky (10/22/86 in Lexington). UF has come back from an 0-2 deficit 16 times in program history, seven of those at home. Sunday’s match was third-highest attended home match of the season with 3,008 strong rallying the team to victory.

“It was awesome,” Florida junior setter Taylor Brauneis (Crystal Lake, Ill.) said. “We come in (to the press conference) and we’re smiling because the fans were in it and we were in it. It was a total team effort and it just feels amazing.”

Florida was led by the hard-hitting duo of junior middle blocker Chloe Mann (Gainesville, Fla.) and freshman outside hitter Živa Recek (Kočevje, Slovenia). Mann hit .409 against the ‘Cats, registering 11 kills and six blocks, while Recek notched a match-high 19 kills to go along with eight digs. Recek’s kill total marks the 10th time this season she has led Florida in kills and is the highest kill output in a five-set match since Mann and Florida All-American Kristy Jaeckel recorded 19 each on the road in the Gators’ 3-2 comeback win over Arkansas.

Freshman Gabby Mallette (Orange Park, Fla.) stuffed six blocks on Sunday, finishing up a stellar defensive weekend at the net for the Gators, who tallied 28 blocks on the weekend. Senior Tangerine Wiggs (Seattle, Wash.) had her 10th match of the season hitting above .300 (min. 5 kills), smashing nine kills on .348 hitting and coming on strong for Florida with three kills in the final stanza.

“I think you could see it in the numbers; there was an inspired group on the bench,” Wise commented. “Our seniors, Betsy and Tange, as well as Chloe were terrific and they just had that look about them that they weren’t going to go down without a fight.”

Brauneis dished out 47 assists against UK, narrowly missing a double-double with nine digs. Sophomore libero Taylor Unroe (Muncie, Ind.) scooped 16 digs and fellow sophomores Madison Monserez (Orlando, Fla.) and Holly Pole (Ocala, Fla.) combined for 11 digs on the afternoon.

The Gators jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first set, courtesy of kills by Mann and Recek and a Mann-Wiggs stuff block. A Mallette solo stuff put the Gators ahead, 7-3, but Kentucky went on a 6-0 run behind the serve of Alex Morgan to jump out in front, 9-7. A Mallette cross-court kill briefly stopped the Wildcat run but a quick kill out of the middle by Mann briefly shifted the momentum back towards the Gators. UK regrouped and continued to surge, forcing a UF timeout with the Gators down, 13-10. The Wildcats got out to their largest lead of the set behind the serve of Ashley Frazier with the ‘Cats leading 16-10. Two quick kills off the block for Recek inched the Gators within three of the Wildcat lead, 17-14, forcing a UK timeout.

A Mallette kill off-hands out of the Florida timeout kept the Gators’ rally alive, down 22-18. Back-to-back Mann-Wiggs stuff blocks forced the ‘Cats second timeout of the set, as UF pulled within two, down 22-20. A Mallette-Mann roof put Florida within one of Kentucky at 23-22 and a Wiggs slam out of the middle saved a Wildcat set point. Florida’s rally fell short in the end, as Kentucky pulled away with the first set victory, 25-22.

Kentucky kept the momentum heading into the second stanza, pulling ahead 5-2 behind the serve of Lauren O’Conner. The Gators pulled within one of the Wildcats courtesy of back-to-back UK miscues but Kentucky rolled on a 4-0 run to force a Florida timeout, down 8-4. Florida was unable to find a rhythm early, as UK continued to surge, up 12-7. Back-to-back UK errors got the Gators within three, down 12-9. A Wiggs kill briefly paused the UK run but Kentucky went on a 4-0 run to leap ahead 17-10 and force the Gators to burn their second timeout of the set.

The Gators put together a 3-0 rally late in set two to pull within six at 20-14 and force the ‘Cats to use their first timeout of the stanza. Kills by Brauneis and redshirt freshman middle blocker Simone Antwi (Fairfax Station, Va.) kept the Gators in the set at 21-17 and back-to-back UK hitting errors put Florida within four, down 22-18. A Mann solo stuff kept the stanza tight, 23-19, but the Wildcats put the set away off a Gator misfire, 25-20.

The opening of the third set featured seven ties and two lead changes, as two kills for Recek kept the Gators out in front early, 3-2. Florida continued to push, pulling ahead 10-7 behind the serve of Recek, forcing a UK timeout. An Antwi solo stuff continued the Florida surge, as the Gators led 11-7. Back-to-back Florida errors allowed Kentucky to pull within one, 12-11. The Gators kept their composure and quickly extended their lead to three, 14-11. A Recek slam through the seam of the Kentucky block forced a second UK timeout with Florida ahead, 17-13.

The Wildcats didn’t back down despite the deficit and tied the set at 18-18 behind the serve of Frazier. A kill down the pipe for Recek gave the Gators a 21-20 advantage and a Wiggs slam to the deep corner put Florida ahead, 22-21. Back-to-back overpass kills for Recek put Florida at set point, 24-21, and a UK hitting error tilted the stanza in the Gators’ favor, 25-22. Freshman Recek put the Gators on her back in the third set, slamming eight errorless kills to hit .533 out of intermission.

“We asked a whole lot of a freshman,” Wise noted. “She serves, passes, plays in the middle back, and (today) she was matched up against one of the premiere right-side players in the country in Whitney Billings. Two of the things that we’ve been impressed with from Ziva from the get-go are her volleyball IQ and how hard she competes.”

The Orange and Blue jumped out to a 5-0 advantage in the fourth set behind the serve of Recek, as four UK errors in the opening points put Florida in the lead. A Mallette slam through the seam of the UK block kept the Gators ahead, 6-1, and a Brauneis-to-Mann kill off the quick set gave the Gators an 8-3 lead. An Unroe ace kept UF up, 11-6. Rookie Mallette was a part of two huge blocks as she teamed up with Smith for a roof at 14-9 and again with Mann at 16-10. Brauneis served up an ace to keep the Gators rolling out of the ‘Cats timeout at 17-10.

UK pulled within five after winning a long rally but back-to-back Kentucky errors got the Gators to the double-decade mark at 20-13. A Smith slam out of the middle got the Gators within four of the set at 21-14 but back-to-back UF errors forced the Gators to call timeout at 22-17. Recek halted the Wildcat run with a slam down the line to get the Gators within two of forcing a fifth at 23-18. Smith slammed a kill of the slide to set up set point, 24-20. UK put together two quick points to force the Orange and Blue to take their final timeout of the fourth stanza, 24-22. A Mallette kill through the seam of the block forced the fifth and decisive set, 25-22.

UK got out to a 2-0 lead in the fifth but a Mann quick kill and an ace for Pole tied the set at 2-2. Recek tipped one right behind the block to go up 4-3 and back-to-back rocket kills by Wiggs forced a UK timeout with UF leading 6-3. An overpass kill for Wiggs gave the Gators an 8-4 lead as the teams switched sides. Recek nailed an ace to get the Gators to double digits at 10-5. A Kentucky service error and ensuing kill by Recek forced the Wildcats’ second timeout of the stanza with Florida ahead, 12-6. Recek nailed one down the pipe to set up match point and Mann put the match away for Florida, 15-8.

Florida has held Kentucky to its two lowest hitting percentages in SEC play this season (9/16/12: 150; 10/7/12: .185) and the Gators swept the Wildcats on the season for the second time in three years.

“When you’re down 0-2, you can’t let your confidence slip because that’s when teams can go on a run and gain confidence, so it’s really important that we rally together as a team and feed off each other’s energy,” Wiggs said. “This wasn’t necessarily our best passing match, and it was only that way because we have, I believe, some of the best passers in the country. Day-in and day-out, they come in and go unnoticed because they pass so flawlessly. That’s the reality of volleyball, but it was a great team win and everyone did a great job of stepping up and making sure we got a win at the end of the day.”

The Orange and Blue finish their homestand as they play host to Ole Miss and Auburn next weekend at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The Gators welcome the Rebels at 7 p.m. on Friday evening in Florida’s “Salute Those Who Serve” military appreciation match. On Sunday, Florida faces the Auburn Tigers on Sun Sports at 1:30 p.m. in the O’Dome.

Courtesy UF Communications