Florida volleyball’s final home series opened with a (25-18, 25-21, 25-21) sweep in the first match Saturday. The No. 10 Gators played the No. 18 Kentucky Wildcats in a match to decide who would take sole possession of the top of the Southeastern Conference.

The two teams played three close sets, but Florida had the leverage for the majority of game time and walked away sitting atop the SEC with a 13-2 conference record.

The first set started with a service ace by the Wildcats to give them the early lead. However, the next serve was a service error, and the set was tied at 1-1 without Florida ever touching the ball.

After exchanging kills, the set was tied and freshman Alexis Stucky earned the advantage for the Gators with a service ace. The teams took turns getting out front and tying it back up, but after taking a 8-7 lead, Florida lost some momentum to Kentucky.

The Wildcats went on a four serve run to take a three-point lead at 11-8. Florida stayed close, not allowing breathing room for Kentucky until it tied it up and took the lead after an attack error by Kentucky junior Reagan Rutherford and a kill by Florida junior Sofia Victoria.

Florida stayed hot, winning its eighth point in nine serves after Stucky registered a kill to give the Gators a 21-16 lead and force a timeout by the Wildcats. The Gators kept their momentum through the set and won 25-18 after Emerson Hoyle found Stucky for her third kill in the first set alone.

Despite Florida ending the first set on a run, Kentucky had all the momentum early in the second set. The Wildcats won four of the first five serves, three of them due to kills by Kentucky senior Adanna Rollins.

Florida ripped the lead from Kentucky when it went on a five-point run to give itself a 8-6 lead. Kentucky was awarded a point after Florida sophomore Merritt Beason committed a service error, but the home team scored two more in a row to give it a 10-7 lead.

The Wildcats won two serves in a row and began building some confidence, but a three-point run put the Gators out front, 14-10. Kentucky crept closer and closer until it finally tied the set at 20 with a kill by redshirt junior Bella Bell.

Florida responded appropriately and won five of six serves, with three serves in a row ending with blocks by sophomore Gabrielle Essix to take the 25-21 second-set victory. Essix earned her second kill of the night to win the set for the Gators.

The Gators opened the third set strong, with Essix and senior Marina Markova stuffing Rutherford’s attack. After points by each team, Kentucky won two serves in a row and held a 3-2 lead. 

Florida regained the lead at 5-4 after a kill and block by Victoria, but the Wildcats took it back immediately. UF was within two points and tied the set five times until UK took a 17-14 lead after winning two serves in a row. 

Kentucky pushed its lead to four points, and sophomore Trinity Adams responded with a diving save that fell on Kentucky’s side of the court. Rollins got a kill for the Wildcats, but Florida earned two points in a row from kills by Markova and Essix to come within two. 

Rutherford and Bell blocked Markova, but the Gators didn’t fall out of the set. An attack error by Kentucky and a service ace by freshman Emily Canaan brought Florida within one, 20-19, and forced a timeout by Kentucky.

Beason scored the first point out of the timeout with her sixth kill of the night to tie the set. Essix broke the tie with her fourth kill of the night. Despite the four-point slide, Kentucky’s Rutherford got a kill to tie the set back up at 21. 

However, the Gators found their stride. Stucky found Victoria twice in a row for kills to put the home team up, 23-21. Victoria got her third kill in a row and junior Elli McKissock’s service ace won the third set (25-21) and the match (3-0) for the Gators.

Beason struggled in the match, earning 6 kills on 21 attempts with 4 errors for a .095 hitting percentage. In her absence her teammates stepped up to fill in the gaps. Head coach Mary Wise said any night any player can step up and be the difference maker.

“This is who the Florida Gators of ‘22 are,” Wise said.

Victoria led the team with 13 kills, and Markova contributed 11 of her own. Stucky was her usual self and led the offense with 35 assists in the match, while also tying her career high in kills with five.

The Gators offense had 13 more kills, 46 compared to 33, than the Wildcats. The Gators defense showed out with Essix and Markova led the way with stuffs at the net, tallying 5 and 4 blocks respectively.

McKissock and Canaan each had double-digit digs. McKissock’s 15 and Canaan’s 10 helped the Gators outmatch the Wildcats by 20. Florida had 53 digs and Kentucky had 33.

The Gators will turn around to play the Wildcats again in less than 24 hours. Wise said Kentucky is going to come out even more inspired and the Gators will have to prepare for that.

“We learn from every match,” Wise said, “whether we had won 3-0 or lost 0-3.”

The Gators play the Wildcats again at 2 p.m. Sunday for Florida’s senior night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

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