In what looks to be Florida’s last home match of the season, the Gators swept the No. 6 seed Cyclones in three hard-fought sets.
The No. 3 seed Florida Gators took on the No. 6 seed Iowa State Cyclones Saturday in the second round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association volleyball tournament. The Gators swept the Cyclones (25-19, 25-23, 25-14) highlighted by a dominant defensive effort.
“Our defense is so special and so unique,” said Florida sophomore hitter Merritt Beason. “Lots of credit to Iowa State because they run a very different offense than we’re used to seeing.”
UF junior libero Elli McKissock, who ended with 17 digs and 3 service aces, was waiting to start the match with her serve, and the Gators’ and Cyclones’ fans went back and forth in the stands. Iowa fans alternated chanting, “Iowa,” and, “Power,” while the Gators repeated, “Let’s go Gators.”
McKissock hit the first ball into play, and the second round of the NCAA volleyball tournament was underway. On her attack, Iowa State freshman Maya Duckworth hit the ball wide, and Florida earned the first point.
The Florida libero followed the point with a service ace, and the Gators had a 2-0 lead. However, Iowa State evened the set after a kill and a bad set by Florida freshman setter Alexis Stucky.
A 6-1 run by the Gators regained the lead for the home team and helped it to a 8-3 lead. Iowa State responded, scoring three points on four serves, but another 6-1 run by Florida propelled it to a 15-7 lead. Iowa State called its second timeout of the set, and the Gators held all the momentum.
Every time the Cyclones inched closer to the Gators, the latter would pull away. After being down by eight, Iowa State came within five points twice, but never closed the gap. Florida won the first set, 25-19, due to a kill by Stucky.
Iowa State had more kills than Florida — 14 compared to 13 — but the Gators only had three errors. Florida played a cleaner set than the Cyclones, who had seven errors, and took the first set by six points.
Iowa State came into the second set like the first set never even happened. It scored the first three points. After a kill by Florida sophomore middle blocker Bre Kelley, the Cyclones tallied back-to-back kills to take a 5-1 lead and force an early Florida timeout.
The No. 6 away team earned the first point after the timeout, but a three-point run by the Gators brought them within two. The teams engaged in a back-and-forth battle; Florida tried to narrow the gap and tie the set, while Iowa State attempted to hold onto the advantage.
Beason and sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix finally brought the team within one at 10-9, blocking Iowa State’s shot. On the next play, the Gators almost pulled off one of the most impressive rallies of the season.
After touching a Gator, the ball went flying toward the bleachers. Freshman Emily Canaan sent the ball straight up, and Stucky came flying in, smacking the ball with her first and sending it over the net. A few hits later, junior Sofia Victoria attacked the ball, but she hit it too far and Iowa State was awarded the point after the review. The Cyclones led, 11-9, when Florida nearly tied the set.
The teams continued fighting, and the Gators wouldn’t go away. After a few serves the Gators scored three in a row, capped off by a block by Essiz and Victoria.
Florida trailed by one, 18-17, and Iowa State called a timeout. Head coach Mary Wise shot toward the court, pumping her fist, and high-fiving Essix. Florida trailed for much of the match but was playing with contagious energy.
The Gators tied the set at 19 when McKissock hit her second service ace of the match. Iowa State scored again to break the tie, but a high-flying kill by Beason and a powerful strike by Victoria put the Gators on top for the first time in the set.
Back-to-back Cyclone points elevated Iowa State back on top and the teams were in a back-and-forth shootout. A nifty kill by Stucky, back-to-back blocks by Kelley and a powerful kill by senior hitter Marina Markova gave the Gators a 25-23 second-set victory. Florida led two sets to none.
UF came out in the third set looking like its adrenaline was still pumping from the previous set. Beason’s attack was stuffe at the net on the first serve, but she countered with a kill and service ace to take a 2-1 lead.
She committed a service error on the next play, but McKissock dove for the ball, digging it up and dropping it on the other side of the net.
“Our block was setting up really good looks for me just to be able to see the hitters, McKissock said.
Sophomore Trinity Adams served back-to-back aces, and Florida was firing on all cylinders.
The teams split the next six points, but a three-point Florida run gave the Gators an 11-5 lead and forced a Cyclone timeout. Iowa State got a kill, but Florida scored three in a row, forcing a timeout and moving its lead to 14-6.
The Gators kept rolling and got out to an 11-point, 17-6 lead after scoring six in a row. Then, the Cyclones got some momentum. They won four of five serves and trailed 18-10.
Florida called a timeout and scored first after the stoppage, but Iowa State scored three in a row and trailed by six, 19-13. However, the Gators won six of the last seven serves and completed the sweep with a 25-14 victory in the third set.
The Gators’ offense looked good, but the defense was the highlight. Three Florida players finished with double digit digs; McKissock had 17, Beason had 13 and Canaan had 10.
The Florida block got in Iowa State’s way throughout the entire match. It came up with 9 blocks — led by Essix’s 6 — and helped the back line come up with 64 digs.
“The defense that we run here is very unique,” Wise said.”To a player, they will tell you that they worked really hard on that part of the game.”
Florida will now turn its sights to No. 2 Pittsburgh. It will take on the Panthers Dec. 8 in Wisconsin.