Freshman right-side/setter Kelly Murphy and sophomore outside hitter Callie Rivers combined for 20 kills on a combined .472 hitting with 13 digs, and Florida finished its regular-season home slate undefeated with a 3-0 (25-16, 25-16, 25-20) win against Alabama on Senior Day Sunday in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
The Gators (23-3, 17-2 Southeastern Conference), who improved to 292-15 (.951) at home under head coach Mary Wise, finished the 2008 regular-season home schedule with a perfect 14-0 record, including a 10-0 mark in league play in the O’Connell Center. Along the way, Florida defeated then-No. 23 Long Beach State and then-No. 25 Kentucky during this season’s home slate.
Florida, which has won 17 consecutive SEC titles, needs a win at South Carolina on Wednesday night in its final league contest to clinch at least a share of the 2008 SEC title. The Gators are currently in a tie with Kentucky atop the league standings with both schools holding a 17-2 conference record. The Wildcats close out their SEC regular-season schedule next Friday in Lexington, Ky., against Tennessee.
“This was a great way to end the regular-season at home by how well we played in both phases of the game – offensively and defensively,” Wise said. “We have put ourselves in a position, with one match remaining, to win an SEC title and, as a coach, that’s where you want to be at the end of the season.”
Seniors Kelsey Bowers and Christina Diaz each were honored with framed jerseys following the match, as the duo played its final regular-season home contest in front of the Gator faithful. Manager Lance Burbank, a five-time recipient of the Melissa DeLong Hamby Memorial Scholarship, also was recognized for his years of service to the program.
“The reason we have Senior Day is to say thank you to our seniors for their commitment to our program and how many hours and how much sweat they put into it,” Wise said. “Kelsey Bowers battled through a back injury she suffered this spring, when no one would have blamed her if she had decided to retire. [Christina Diaz] D’s playing time changed this season, but she was arguably our most valuable player. The two of them combined have really been terrific senior leaders.”
The Gators out-hit the Crimson Tide .291-(-.011) marking the first time that they have limited their opposition to a negative hitting efficiency since holding Ole Miss to a -.025 hitting percentage on Sept. 21, 2007.
Murphy notched her 19th career double-double, as her 10 kills came on .500 hitting with 14 assists. She also charted six digs and two service aces. Rivers’ 10 kills came on .450 hitting with seven digs and two blocks for a match-high 13.0 points.
Freshman outside hitter Colleen Ward posted nine kills and three blocks, while freshman setter Cindy Bathelt dished out a match-high 20 assists. Freshman middle blocker Cassandra Anderson tallied a team-high five blocks.
Junior libero Elyse Cusack, Florida’s all-time career digs leader, came up with a match-high 17 digs to increase her career total to 1,560. She had both a perfect reception and a perfect service efficiency mark on Sunday, with seven service attempts and no errors and 21 reception attempts with no errors.
“We passed really well today,” Wise said. “When Elyse Cusack is at her best, the game is almost in slow motion for her and that’s what she did both passing and digging today.”
As a team, Florida out-scored Alabama 54.0-30.0.
Alabama opened up to a 5-1 lead to begin the first set behind a four-point serving run by the Crimson Tide’s Amy Pauly. Florida began slowly chipping away at its deficit and, with the Gators trailing 8-4, Rivers notched a kill to spark a 3-0 run that also included an ace from Rivers to bring her team to within one, 8-7.
After an Alabama kill, sophomore middle blocker/right-side Lauren Bledsoe registered a kill and Bowers served an ace to commence a 5-1 run that put Florida up 12-10. With the Gators up,
12-11, Rivers, Murphy and Anderson each registered a kill as part of a 3-1 run that extended the Gators’ edge to three, 15-12. Florida continued to thrive, closing out the set on a 10-4 spree to take a 25-16 first-set victory.
Florida raced out to a 7-4 advantage to start the second set and kept rolling to a 14-7 lead after a service ace by Bowers and an Alabama attack error. With the Gators ahead 15-9, Murphy registered a kill and sophomore defensive specialist Erin Fleming served an ace to extend Florida’s edge to 17-9.
After a put-down by the Crimson Tide, Rivers posted back-to-back kills to put UF ahead 19-10 and force Alabama head coach Judy Green to burn a timeout. With Florida leading 22-11 after a Murphy ace, Alabama ran off three in a row to cut within nine, 23-14. A put-down by Ward brought the Gators to set point at 24-14 before the Tide staved off two attempts at the set. A kill by Bledsoe on the right side closed out the 25-16 victory.
Florida began the third set on a 7-2 tear after back-to-back kills by Ward and Rivers and an Alabama attack error. Two put-downs by the Crimson Tide brought them within three, 9-6, before a Rivers kill stopped the streak, The two teams continued to battle closely before the Gators, leading 16-14, got a kill from Rivers and a block by Rivers and Bowers to go ahead 18-14 heading into an Alabama timeout.
Out of the break, Murphy served an ace to put Florida in front 19-14. With the Gators ahead 23-20, Murphy posted a kill, and Anderson and Rivers registered a block on the next play to close out the match with a 25-20 third-set victory.
Alabama (15-13, 8-11 SEC) was led by senior outside hitter Brooks Webster’s team-high eight kills, four digs and three blocks for a squad-best 10.5 points.
Florida returns to action on Wednesday when it travels to Columbia, S.C., to face South Carolina. Opening serve is slated for 7 p.m.